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Conveying bad news is part of every manager’s job. It comes with territory. The problem is that many managers are not skilled at doing it.
Experts say preparation is the key to turning a difficult conversation into a successful one. Yesterday, LeadingCompany looked at preparing for the emotional side of this grim task of leadership (see the story here).
Today we look at the practical skills, preparation and experience that make the process run smoothly and help both leaders and their companies recover fast and get on with business.
Many leaders fall into management jobs because they are outstanding operational or technical experts in their field. They managed projects, not people – a completely different skill set. Having tough conversations requires certain skills you don’t pick up automatically when you become a manager.
The experts, many of whom have had to do it themselves, told LeadingCompany delivering bad news is a skill that can be learned.
The Australian Institute of Management, for example, offers a course on difficult conversations. It’s highly sought after.
AIM chief executive officer, Susan Heron, knows a lot about these sorts of conversations. Before she joined the AIM, she worked in the banking sector in various senior roles at ANZ, Westpac and Rothschild, roles that included having demanding conversations. But, she says, it’s just part of the job.
Heron says: “The ability to have a difficult conversation and the necessity to have the skill to have that difficult conversation is a fundamental requirement for management. It’s not an option. You have to be able to do this.”
Face to face
The challenge for managers now is whether conversational skills are now being undermined by the avalanche of electronic communication that takes over a manager’s working life. There have been instances where it took over face-to-face conversation. Sydney retailer Modestie Boutique last year, for example, was fined $10,000 by Fair Work Australia for sacking an employee by text message.
Heron says nothing replaces a face-to-face conversation. “People might talk about the tyranny of distance or time, but you know what? Make the effort,’’ she says. “You can’t delegate this type of conversation to technology. It’s about respect, courtesy and a message to the rest of your staff about how you value them.
“The conversations are unpleasant, horrible and if you are having them, you should never ever undertake them lightly. You should never do it easily. It should never be easy to anyone.
“It’s a non-negotiable; it’s an essential skill. Managers have to be skilled and they have to be trained how to do it because, quite frankly, it’s a poor message to the rest of your staff if you cannot give the person the respect and courtesy of a face-to-face conversation. “
Hillary Armstrong, the director of education at the Institute of Executive Coaching, says managers are struggling these days with the emphasis on electronic communications. “The rise of digital communications has made it worse because people have these emails firing off at each other, and … when feedback is delivered by digital communications or off the cuff, this is a real problem,’’ she says.
That said, she does not believe managers are worse communicators these days because of technology. “I know a lot of the top layers of organisations who don’t have digital skills are still appalling at difficult conversations. It’s not a generational thing, in my mind,’’ she says.
As for the conversations, there are some basic ground rules. And you have to be ready for push-back. “It’s important to state clearly and succinctly what you have to state with the idea that you recognise there will be other perceptions that are not only yours,’’ she says.
“You are stating your side very clearly and respectfully and then you are giving them the opportunity to state their side and avoid going, ‘Yes but, yes but’.
“When you state your own side, it’s important to give concrete examples and give people something specific to acknowledge. I think it’s important to listen to people very openly without judgement and clearly state the next step ahead, what you want.”
Armstrong says: “I always ask myself if I was on the other side of the conversation, how would I like the person to be telling me what they are telling me?”
She says preparing is not a complicated exercise, and should not take long. Not preparing, however, would be disastrous. “Relationships are broken one conversation at a time. It only takes one clumsy and poorly-managed conversation for a person to lose trust in you,’’ she says.
Do the learning
The institute has two popular courses: coaching skills for leaders and how to have difficult conversations. Managers are queuing up to pick up these skills. “We have done research on this and I would say having difficult conversations and giving feedback has always been one of the top priorities that people want out of coaching and one of the top priorities that they will get out of coaching. It’s also one of the most significant things people say they need,” she says.
Other experts, who have had to do it themselves, point to some basic rules. Treat people with respect, where possible try to have a good relationship with them so that the conversation will be more productive, don’t put it off, don’t let your emotions get the better of you and keep the conversation business-like. If you have to explain why someone didn’t get a promotion, keep it simple and stress that you felt they needed experience. What’s important here is avoiding the negative. Similarly, if you are retrenching someone, look at making the transition as painless as possible.
Have a communications plan
Tim McLean, chief executive officer of lean manufacturing and project management company TXM Lean Solutions, says preparation involves working out a communication plan. That means letting every manager know what the message and making sure every manager is giving the same message.
That’s not something every company does. When Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood announced to staff that 1900 people would be losing their jobs, Fairfax editors had no idea the announcement was coming. It suggested that Hywood did not trust his managers not to let the cat out of the bag – not a good message to send out, whether or not it was true.
McLean says good company leaders take a different approach. “You have to get them all together on the morning of the announcement,’’ McLean says. “You need have it all worked out. You would have a couple of key people who’ve been involved and you’ll have cheat0sheets for them.
“Before the event, you have to think about who you communicate to like your managers, your people, potentially the media if it’s big enough. You have to be prepared in case the union whips up the media or there is some other little storm.”
McLean, a former operations manager in manufacturing who has had to handle all sorts of difficult conversations from retrenchments to performance issues, says that in the case of large layoffs, like at Fairfax or Ford, it’s a good idea to have Frequently Asked Questions sheet distributed to staff, either by intranet or in hard copy. Sometimes, these might have to be updated daily.
Have things written down, too
The important part, McLean says, is to remember that people switch off once they hear the bad news.
“Basically, people stop listening once they hear the factory is going to close and people are going to lose their job,’’ he says. “They start thinking ‘Oh shit, I have just bought a new house’, ‘Oh shit, my wife is eight months’ pregnant’. As soon as they hear the bad news, they start thinking about them personally.
“So you need a process where you communicate with people individually. Some of them might be doing a little dance and saying ‘I want a package’. They want to know how much they’re going to get, they want to know if they can keep their job. So you have to know those kinds of answers.
“You need to have thought out the likely questions people will ask and how you would answer those, and have that information for managers.
“The very first question people are going to ask is: ‘What will I get?’ If you don’t immediately know, you need to have a process that says this is what’s going to happen and this is when you’ll be told. Otherwise you will have people annoying you and the HR department asking ‘What will I get, when do I find out what my package is?’ “
Find ways to agree
He says another way to ease the conversation is to try to find points of agreement with the other party. It defuses the tensions and emotions.
“I had to demote a guy and he was a guy I had a very close personal relationship with and … he didn’t cope with [a] promotion. He got promoted, it didn’t work out and the factory he was running was going to hell in a hand basket and we had to undo the situation,’’ he says.
It’s the sort of conversation that will start off with something like this: “Barry I know how you feel; I know you’ve worked hard and it’s been tough.”
“You don’t try to rationalise it and talk about the company’s economic situation,’’ McLean says. “You have to say ‘Yes I understand, you have done a great job on this and I agree with you’. What you will find is that their emotion will drift away but then you have to get back to the point and say we will have to find you another role.’”
The worst word
McLean warns against one particular word. “Don’t use the word ‘but’. Try and use the word ‘and’. ‘But’ is a real killer – almost a putdown word in these conversations. So you say: ‘You’ve done a good job and we understand, we need to find you a role that suits you the best.
“Initially, they’ll go ballistic and then he’ll calm down and then you’ll find the common ground. You find the points where you can agree and you defuse the emotion without giving away the key points you had to make.
“What you don’t want to be saying is “No, no, no, no, this is going to happen, black and white, suck it up, the company has to do what it has do’ because you will get people becoming completely irrational and you lose them and they stop listening to you.”
McLean says: “You have to listen to what they’re saying to you and don’t see it as a black and white discussion. There will be things they’ll be saying that you can agree with. Whatever you do, don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t say we’ll review the situation if the decision’s already been made.”
He says the same conversation can be used when the manager is retrenching someone. He gives an example: “‘We’ll give you an opportunity to interview for the new job. Yes, I understand you have worked here your whole career but we’ll give you some outplacement assistance. You’ve never written a resume? We’ll make sure you get some help writing a resume and if you want to show me your resume to make sure it’s good, I’m happy to do that for you.’
“You find that you then defuse a lot of the emotion,’’ he says. “You’re not trying to have a negotiation. What you’re trying to do is defuse the emotion because usually the situation is not as bleak as the person first sees it. You have to get them out of the situation where they see it as the end of the world and you’re a bastard to ‘Here’s the situation, it’s not your fault, let’s try and help you make the most of this bad situation.’ ”
And if a person gets emotional and starts crying? Let it happen, he says. “You might ask them if they want a glass of water, do you want me to stay, do you want some time on your own,’’ he says. “It’s a grief process; it’s the same as a divorce. You might want to consider counselling services or chaplaincy services.”
Jannine Fraser, managing director of outplacement company Directioneering Victoria, says conversations about redundancy should take no more than 10 minutes. She says managers should not try to make it less unpleasant for themselves by shooting the breeze. “In fact, I worry when a meeting goes longer than that because they can’t possibly be talking about the actual agenda item, Fraser says. “They will no doubt be discussing other subjects. If you’re communicating job loss, there is not a whole lot of other conversations to be had.
“If you’re having a meeting about job loss, stick to it being about job loss and don’t get distracted by the employee’s agenda or by your personal needs to soften the blow by talking about other things or shooting the breeze about the footy results from last weekend.”
Put your hand up to get experience
Managers can learn the skills but hands-on experience is critical, Fraser says. “The people who tend to deliver bad news the best are people who are quite seasoned managers,’’ she says. “They have seen a lot in their time. Unfortunately for everybody, and it is a pretty natural thing, people have learned from their own errors of judgement around communications.
“Quite often in our work, when we work with people who have to give bad news, about job loss inevitably, the people who are prepared to be very direct and forthright and tell it as it is but keep the emotion out of it will tend to do a better job than someone who thinks they’re doing the right thing by couching it in overly gentle terms.”
Career strategist, Brian Gardner, says role playing with a more experienced person is very useful for a leader handling a difficult conversation for the first time.
Fraser agrees: “You should practise your message at home and privately. Getting your mouth around the words means your delivery of the message will be better.
“There is real method in planning and being prepared for the conversation you are going to have, keeping the personal out of it, even though it’s a personal experience losing your job, and not trying to cushion the blow with confusing messages because that’s what happens if you go off script.”
“People worry that sounds overly rehearsed but it never does because even from the manager’s point of view, there’s a degree of emotionality associated with delivering a message and it will always have a human feel to it.”