As a manager, at some point, you’re going to have to deliver 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 mental 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 of 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.