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  • Writer's pictureAttia Qureshi

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Provide reassurance and certainty that they are valuable to the organization.

  4. Take a short break.

  5. Come back to discuss the details.

  6. Provide as much autonomy in the process as possible.

  7. Give your team member a few days to digest the change.

  8. 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.

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  • Writer's pictureAttia Qureshi

According to Thomas Kilmann, there are five types of conflict styles, all of which we see reflected in characters on the show “The Good Place.” Which style resonates most with how you handle conflict? It’s helpful to learn these conflict styles and recognize not only which one you have, but to also acknowledge the conflict styles of the people in your life. Doing this will help you to better work with them.

Take a look at each character’s conflict style and learn tips for how to best work through conflict with each one.

While we all love the lead character, Eleanor, she is power oriented and always trying to win.

Tip: With a competitor, find a way for them to feel like they are winning. Often with competitive types, you can get what you want just by labeling them as the winner.

The architect of Neighborhood 12358W, Michael continually tries to find a solution and build consensus with those around him.

Tips: Collaborators are great because they want to work with you, so lean into that. Trust that they want what is best for both of you and be willing to problem solve together.

Chidi, the anxiety-ridden moral philosophy professor, is constantly trying to find a solution that works for everyone. However, that usually means no one is completely happy.

Tip: Compromisers want everyone to get something, so try to show them a way that might happen. If you come in with the plan, they will likely go for it if it at all seems reasonable.

At one point or another, we’ve all been Tahani: Choosing to avoid a problem instead of addressing it head-on.

Tip: Find a way to make the situation sound more like an opportunity rather than something scary and explosive. Avoidant types usually fear strong negative emotions, so keep yourself collected and the energy calm.

Sacrificing her own viewpoint for the happiness of others is the dominant quality we see in Janet during times of conflict.

Tip: This may sound like a great person to deal with because you’ll always get your way, but it tends to lead to resentment over time. When working with accommodators, make sure that they also get something so they don't harbor that resentment later.

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  • Writer's pictureAttia Qureshi

Many of us are rapidly approaching the one year anniversary of working from home. The occasion likely marks hundreds, if not thousands, of video conferencing calls. While they’re a safe alternative to the meetings that used to fill your day, I have missed the casual interactions that come from a daily in-person workplace. The invitation to grab a coffee, passing a colleague in the hallway, chatting about the upcoming holidays — I desperately miss all of it.

There’s no replacing those moments when I’m feeling a bit low and a coworker notices, offering me an ear to vent or bringing me over a homemade cookie. One of the beautiful parts of these interactions is that there is no discussion about work, the moment is purely an opportunity to connect on a personal level. Working with other people entirely through a screen has left me aching for these human interactions.

A solution to this problem came to me while I was sitting in a culture audit meeting with a client a few days ago. Someone suggested that in every meeting, you make an effort to talk about something that has nothing to do with work for 5 to 10 minutes. They suggested talking about everyday life things, like holidays, kids, hobbies, etc. My ears perked, but I immediately rejected the notion. Five minutes out of a 30 min meeting? No way. That time is already precious enough.

When I thought about it more later, I realized this was an opportunity to satiate my desire for human connection. I have a bad habit of jumping into work right away, so much so that my husband and parents have facetiously labeled me the “Efficiency Queen.” This title, I thought, may ultimately be my problem. My daily grind of back-to-back Zoom meetings meant that I needed to be intentional about my connections. So I decided to try it out.

My next Zoom meeting was scheduled with a woman who helps me with my online marketing. She and I have known each other since 2009, but only recently started working together. We had the foundation for a friendship, but I still found myself vexed that there wasn’t more of a human connection during our meetings. That is, until I realized that my get-to-work mentality may be the reason.

I decided it was harmless enough of a social experiment, so during our meeting, I spent more time than usual asking her about her weekend. We usually have a one-minute back and forth exchange of pleasantries to start off every meeting. This time, I decided, I would really dig in. How? By asking questions. She mentioned she and her husband are starting a house-hunting search in Portland, Oregon.

She mentioned her husband’s family living in town and I realized I had no idea where she was originally from. It turns out that a lot of her family is in the Midwest and she grew up visiting Lake Michigan — which is where I live! There was something deeply satisfying about making that connection and learning more about her life. The interaction took seven minutes before we jumped into work, but I found myself much happier and more settled throughout the rest of the conversation.

As an organizational culture consultant, I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve workplace relationships and this time I learned something from my clients. I learned that my drive to be efficient sometimes hinders my ability to make human connections — even in situations where I had a head start. How many opportunities have I missed by rushing to get something done? While yes, being productive is important, seven minutes is not that much of a time investment — especially when you consider the satisfaction it can add to your day.

Try it out yourself, I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

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