As leaders, it’s understandably difficult to give someone on your team bad news. This is in part evolutionary because in many ways, your team is your “tribe.” We innately have a deep desire to be liked and feel needed by our tribe because in the past, if you were kicked out of your tribe it could result in death brought on by enduring the elements alone. This instinct makes it especially hard to give someone news you know they won’t like. Ask any leader and they'll likely tell you it's one of the most challenging parts of their job.
Many leaders have tried to figure out ways to make this job easier by framing the conversation more gently in a feedback sandwich of “something good, something bad, another good thing.” However, from my experience this usually results in a situation where the message isn’t clearly conveyed. These conversations tend to result in a confused direct report and a leader who has chosen to avoid conflict over clear communication.
In reality, being direct is kinder than saying something in a roundabout way to try to make someone feel better. I coach leaders in small group sessions and as a way to practice the tough conversation skills, I ask them to roleplay an upcoming challenging conversation with a direct report. In every coaching group, I come across leaders who in their efforts to be “nice” are indirect and confusing.
Recently, I worked with a leadership coaching client who had the unpleasant job of demoting someone on her team. As a way to practice, she ran through the scenario with me. Over a Zoom call, I could see her fidgeting with something as she told me, “I want you to consider something that I think will be a great opportunity for you.” Right away we had a problem. I asked her if the demotion was optional and, of course, it was not. I explained to my client that asking her team member to consider what you’re about to say is unfair. Next, there was the whole choice of calling the change a “great opportunity.” To a certain extent, I understand why my client started off the way she did. She wanted to frame the situation positively for her employee. She still needs this person to do a good job and she was trying to bring them into the process to gain their buy-in. While saying a demotion is a good opportunity may sound nice, it’s not. It’s not true and your employee certainly won’t see it that way.
So what should you do when delivering bad news such as a demotion? First of all, be direct. Take a moment to think about your own experience of receiving bad news. I’m betting that you prefer when someone is straight with you — empathetic, but to the point.
After you’ve clearly communicated the difficult news, give your team member the opportunity to digest the information. There is a clutching sensation that happens to us when we are put in a position of uncertainty at work: whether that’s a demotion, being moved to a different team, getting a new boss or having a change in job responsibilities. We all dislike uncertainty because we fear the unknown, so offer your team member some certainty by letting them know that they are an essential contributor. An example of how to frame the conversation would be to say: “You are a very valuable contributor to this team. We have spent some time trying to work out the new role you’re in and we aren’t getting the results we had outlined. You really thrived and went above and beyond in XX role, and I’d like to move you back to that position.”
At this point in the conversation, it’s best to pause and let your team member digest the information. Anything you say after this point won’t be heard anyway because they will be busy processing the news. Expect your team member to be shocked, startled, defensive or upset. Some people are prone to responding immediately with anger while others tend to shut down. To give yourself and your team member the space they may need, ask if they’d like to take a break to process the information before discussing the details. Recognize that it’s a hard pill to swallow (you would find hearing the same news yourself to be difficult, right?), but remind them that you’re on their team and want to make everything work despite the setback. You can say, “I understand this may be surprising news, which is hard to hear. Why don’t we take a break for a few minutes and then come back to talk through the details. You’re a valuable contributor to this team and I want to figure out how we can make this work,” with the last sentence being applicable in the case of a demotion.
Once you’ve regrouped and have had a chance to discuss the details, offer your team member the chance to take a few days to sit with the news. With any bad news, there are likely some decisions that need to be made — logistical steps to move forward. Here is a chance to allow your team member some autonomy by bringing them into the process. If there is an aspect of the change that they can influence, ask them for their input. In the case of a demotion, one example is the issue of delivering the news to the rest of the team. Asking your team member how they would like to notify colleagues is a simple way to ease the transition.
In addition, once the dust has settled, ask your team member how they are feeling after they have had some time to process. There will likely be some grief your team member is carrying that hits them on several levels, especially their pride. They may be afraid of what their peers will think and ashamed that they didn’t rise to the occasion. Listen to what they have to say and empathize as much as you can with those feelings. Validate that the change is hard, but also reiterate how much you value them.
Lastly, after you’ve delivered the bad news, leave the conversation on a positive note by focusing on the future. For your demoted team member, is there an opportunity to learn and grow and possibly resume a more advanced position down the road? Lay out the options for their career path so they know that they aren’t stuck in that demoted role forever. Helping your team member envision their future is key to getting them remotivated in their new situation.
Let’s review the steps to take to deliver bad news:
Set up a meeting appropriate for the situation. Make sure you have enough time, taking into account a short break and choosing a space that provides privacy.
Deliver the news straight without any flowery or misleading language. Provide them the reasons (including data, if you have it) on why the decision was made.
Provide reassurance and certainty that they are valuable to the organization.
Take a short break.
Come back to discuss the details.
Provide as much autonomy in the process as possible.
Give your team member a few days to digest the change.
Follow-up to discuss logistical details and how they are feeling.
These conversations are never fun, but with practice this process will become easier. I recommend preparing for the conversation a few minutes beforehand and having a few key phrases you’re ready to share about why the change is happening and why you consider your team member to be a valuable contributor. Even better, practice the conversation with another manager to get your bearings. Even five minutes of preparation can make a huge difference in the way you handle the conversation and thus how it unfolds. Find your empathy by putting yourself in their shoes and think about how you would like to receive the same news.