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How to Give Bad News

As a leader, part of your job is giving bad news to your employees: they don’t qualify for a raise, there are no open engineering roles, and the company is getting rid of free cold brew.


No one likes this. So how do you make these conversations a little less painful?




Be clear


I once had to put a salesperson on a performance improvement plan where failure = fired. We had a whole conversation about expectations and what would happen if they didn’t meet them, but when that scary deadline approached, the rep was caught off guard. I spent a sleepless night replaying our whole initial conversation on loop in my head, thinking through all the ways that I wasn’t explicit enough.


Key learning: Don’t make yourself live through the bad conversation twice. Communicate clearly the first time around.

Acknowledge that it’s not what they want to hear


There is no (genuine) way to make someone believe that not getting a raise is a good thing. My boss really encouraged me to recognize my team’s feelings on tough subjects right at the onset. In many conversations, I’ve even started with: “I know this decision is not what you wanted.”


Key learning: Bring empathy to relieve the tension. Your discomfort with the situation is likely eclipsed by that of the recipient.

Give the why


This won’t necessarily get people on board with your decision, but it can help them understand what conditions led to a bad outcome, and what they should expect moving forward. Walking them through the thought process shows that you’re not making light of a situation that might feel devastating to them.


Key learning: Your job is to make tough calls. Your job is to be able to justify those calls.


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