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Is there a better way to give bad news?

December 17, 2012 Articles, Management No Comments
Bad_news

A six step process…

I well remember the first time I was “corrected” by a manager. I was a young bank clerk and had received a transaction that was incorrect, from a much more senior person (a manager) in another branch of the bank. I sent the transaction back with a note asking for it to be corrected. Next thing I hear was my own manager shouting at me from his office.

Apparently, I had upset his “good colleague” and I must now go and apologise in person! There was no discussion as to whether I was right or wrong about either the transaction or what I did – just “Go immediately and apologise!” I decided then and there that when I got to be a manager and had to correct someone, I would treat my staff quite differently.

As managers, we all have to give feedback from time to time that we consider to be “bad news” for the employee. Do you dread the times when you have to do this? Or perhaps, you handle the situation ok, but the employee’s performance does not seem to improve as a result of your counselling”?

How can we improve both the way we give negative feedback and the impact it has on the other person?

The most common mistake we make is combining bad news with good news. “Andrew, I’ve been impressed with the way you handle the planning, time lines and follow up systems for your projects. But, along the way, you seem to develop poor relationships with some of the key stakeholders. As a result, many of the projects are less successful than they should be.” On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable feedback message from the manager. Will Andrew accept the feedback and will it lead to a rational discussion of how he might improve his stakeholder relationships?

No. There are two reasons why this conversation is likely to become negative rather than positive. Firstly, when mixing “good” and “bad” news, people are more likely to hear only the good news. The bad news, if heard appears as a minor blimp on their performance. In other words, “everything is basically ok with me”.

Secondly, when they do actually hear the bad news it is nearly always because the word “but” has been used to bridge the good and the bad. Using “but” will invariably promote a negative reaction from the employee and the conversation will generate into a downward spiral of argument and counter argument.

There is a positive way to give negative feedback. Here are some of the tips I have learnt through many years of managing people’s performance.

  1. As the manager, you must take responsibility for the performance problem. After all, if the employee’s performance does not improve, whose problem is it? For example you might start the conversation with :”Andrew, I have an (issue / problem / situation) that I need your help with.”
  2. Describe the behaviour that is causing you the problem. Example: “For the last three weeks, the reports I get each week from your department have been at least a day late.”
  3. Explain why this is a problem for you. .Example: “This means that I can’t get the reports collated with those from the other departments in time to get them to the GM to meet his deadline.”
  4. Explain the possible consequences for you both. Example: “The GM got a bit annoyed with me last week and I’m sure he expects much higher performance from my department. I know that if this continues, he is likely to come down on us pretty hard.”
  5. Tell him/her how you feel about the problem. Example: “I am keen to keep a good relationship with our GM.”
  6. Ask for his/her assistance. Example: “What can you do to help me solve this situation?”

The underlying principles to keep in mind when applying this approach are:

  • As the manager, you always maintain ownership of the problem
  • The aim of the process is to have the employee take ownership of the solution
  • Always describe the action of the employee, not them, their personality or their character
  • Use positive words and avoid words such as “but”, “Yes, but” – for more information on the use of positive words see “Are You Positive or Negative

Above all, listen, listen, listen! And be prepared to discuss the employee’s suggestions for how he/she intends to solve the problem. My experience has been that often the employee will come up with a better solution than you had first thought of. Most importantly, because it is their suggestion, they will have commitment for its implementation.

© The National Learning Institute


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