Management Give them the time to think

Delivering Big/Bad News

As a manager, at some point, you’re going to have to delivery news that is going to be of significant consequence to your employees. It’s likely to either be big news (“the team has been split into three and everyone you know is no longer on your team”) or it’s going to be bad (“we need to put you on a performance plan”).

There is probably a lot to say about how to do this well, but I want to focus on the single biggest mistake I’ve made when doing this… not giving the person time to think.

Traditionally, big/bad news is something you sit on for some time either because you have to (i.e. the timed execution of layoffs) or because you’re not looking forward to saying whatever it is you need to say (i.e. performance plans). Regardless, you’re probably going to have the big/bad news percolating through your brain for many days before you deliver it. You get comfortable with the news in that time, it becomes second nature, and less big/bad.

Fast forward to the time when you need to deliver the news to the team. In your one on one, you carefully explain the ins and outs of the situation, you summarize, and you’re done. Whew. That was easy… I thought that was going to be hard. Next topic!

Here’s what happened in the head of your employee on the other end of the table…

“Boy, the Boss is about to say something big, he/she is really nervous.”

“Ok, Boss, cut the chase, how is this going to affect me?”

“… I’m laid off? Wuh?”

Fact is, you kept on talking after you delivered the punch line (laid off, reorged, whatever), but your employee stopped listening at the punch line. They did not hear all your fabulous rationalization about the big/bad news that came after the punch line because they’re basically not sitting in your office, they’re wandering around the inside of the head trying to do all the metal digestion that you did in a week in mere ten minutes… with you yammering away about trivial details.

When it comes to the end of the big talk, you’re going to feel pretty good because when you ask, “Any questions?” you get a blank stare and no response. You will confuse silence for understanding because you didn’t want to deliver the big/bad news in the first place and just want to move on.

Problem is, come the next day, the employees are going to have had actual time to think and they’re going to be stacked three deep outside of your office with comebacks to your punch line that you never thought of.

The fix here is simple. Give them the time to think. When delivering momentous news, tell them that you’re not expecting them to react right now and you prefer if they took the day to digest and come back to have a real conversation the next day.

When you can give your team time to think about the big/bad news, you take the pressure off them when you deliver the punch line. My usual mode of operation is to preface that I’m about to deliver the news, explain I’ll answer any questions they have, but that I’ve already scheduled time on the following day to have the real conversation. I, then, deliver the punch line.

Sometimes there are immediate questions; sometimes there is painful silence. Regardless, come the next working day, they’re full of opinion.

This advice works for most big/bad news except for layoffs when someone is delivered the one-two punch of “you’re laid off” plus “get the hell out”. I’m convinced this intensely blunt way of dealing with people in layoffs is one the reasons employees get pissed and do destructive things during layoffs… they have no means of digest the news in a constructive way. They’re just gone without time to understand what actually happened.

7 Responses

  1. Cool. Looks like you’ve placed alot of thought into this. I wish I could say the same for the managers I’ve worked for.

    What about escorting employees out of the building after a lay-off?. From what I’ve seen, it seems to be the standard way of doing things. When an employee puts his/her heart into their job and when the contracts run dry, and your sitting on overhead for a few weeks, you get treated as though your a criminal and escorted off the property. How do you handle thses situations?.

  2. Layoffs. Ugh.

    There are four events a manager needs to go through in order to say that he/she knows what the hell they are doing.

    They are: hire a person, fire a person, do a review, and do a layoff.

    One would think that firing is the hardest, but it’s not. Layoffs are. When you fire someone, you both basically know what’s going to happen. In a layoff, you’re likely trying to figure out who to let go from a pool of folks that you really like.

    Dealing w/ the actual layoff talk/walk-out is a tricky thing… I’ve done it four times now and each time has been a different experience… probably worth a full column

  3. This is similar to situations we’ve touched on in our physician-patient relationship discussions in medical school. When you deliver bad or big news people are likely to be confused and dazed… it’s often imperative that you allow time for them to mull over the news lest they make unwise and uninformed decisions about their healthcare. Even physicians that’ve been doing it for years are often uncomfortable with it, and I know I won’t be breaking that trend.

  4. i thought you had just scored a whole bunch of funding for your department and that things were going great. what happened? or were you just writing a hypothetical column?

  5. Stonewall Jacksion 14 years ago

    Your “emotions” and “consideration” have no place in a place of business! You are stealing your employers time if you spend all this time commiserating and hugging and whatever else. Such activities should not even be discussed while you’re punched in! You are degrading your office! If you coddle people they will never get the message and never grow stronger!! Tough love or no love at all is what I say!! asl?>??

  6. Stonewall Jackson 14 years ago

    Seriously, taking a soon to be layed off worker to lunch or something is a meaningless gesture unless you lunch with them regularly. The lesson: be this nice to everybody all the time, even when it isn’t layoff time.

  7. The golden rule. I like it!

    Laying hardworking, qualified people off is tough, period.

    Assuming you care (as a human being), of course.

    I had to lay someone off last year, and it was awful. The guy really deserved to keep his job, but management had to slash cuts, and there was no stopping it. The expereince was made all the more bitter by the fact that less competent people were being kept on the payroll.

    Fortunately I left before things got worse.