Why do otherwise confident and caring people turn into blubbering idiots when delivering bad news?
John Grisham’s new book – Gray Mountain – set in 2008. Three Ivy League attorneys working for a large and prestigious law firm in Manhattan are called to a partner’s office and told they no longer have a job. Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns collapsed and the economy has begun its rapid descent into the Great Recession. Everyone is scared, and everything is chaotic.
The partner begins by explaining in nauseous detail the current economic condition, while thought bubbles appear in the young attorneys’ minds – “okay, we know this – get to the point.” He then tells them that the entire division has been cut. They ask, “You too?” He tells them he’s being “shoved over to tax,” and launches into a speech about how nothing is guaranteed and he too may be in a soup kitchen line before it is all over. Thought bubble: “sure, with the millions you’ve earned as partner safely stored away.”
After the partner explains the furlough arrangement (which forms the plot for the book) for the three young attorneys, he closes by telling them that some of the partners offered to reduce their own pay rather than let attorneys go, but not enough of them voted to do so. Thought bubble: “gee, thanks for sharing that.”
While this may be a work of fiction, I’ve seen this (and worse) time and time again. Otherwise good people try to soften the blow, and in reality make things worse. We come out of the horrid business cycles, and go back to business as usual. We don’t seem to learn that there will always be bad news to deliver; it is inevitable.
Why not go on the offensive and develop the skills to deliver bad news instead?
Let’s explore the business rationale first. An organization’s reputation is crucial to business success. A reputation is enhanced or destroyed by people. Those people may be customers, or they may be employees – past, present and future. Does it not, then, make good business sense to protect the organization’s reputation by treating people authentically?
How can we go on the offensive to treat people authentically and avoid the blubbering idiot syndrome? I see three steps.
Clarify the manager’s role.
Everyone wants to be a manager, right? It is the career step that says “I’ve made it.” A manager has an office, gets a pay bump, and is “in the know” about the business. A key element of any managerial role is clear, honest and authentic communication to the employees within their scope of responsibility, whether the new is good or bad. If new managers are not willing to accept this critical responsibility, they should rethink their career path.
Develop consistent communication skills.
Everyone comes to the manager role with different experiences and different styles. Those differences can result in communicating different messages, whether openly, or through non-verbal communication.
There is a delicate balance between scripting managerial communication, and developing the skills to communicate authentically. When the manager’s personal values conflict with the organization’s decision, it demands that the manager communicate authentically, balancing her own feelings with the message that needs to take place. This is very hard, and made more difficult because of relationships.
Practice, practice, practice
Rather than providing talking points or scripts, what if we provided an opportunity for managers to be presented with communication challenges, and have to deliver the news in a safe space, with helpful feedback about what worked and what didn’t? Awkward, sure. Effective, absolutely.
We would not let a nurse hear a lecture about inserting an IV, and then immediately allow him to place an IV in a patient? Instead, we provide basic content delivery (what must you know about the veins, the equipment, the risks), then we provide a simulated experience (with a mannequin or other equipment), and only after much practice can the nurse actually tend to a patient.
If we agree that a manager’s role can make or break the reputation of the organization, through effective or ineffective communication to employees, why not provide a similar learning and practice experience? How much more confidence would a manager have if they’ve practiced, made mistakes and learned?
Chances are that the partner in Grisham’s book would have learned through practice and feedback to deliver a succinct and clear message at the beginning, to not share stories that only rub salt in the wound, and to present the information authentically honoring the organization’s decision, along with his personal feelings.
I am always amazed at how organizations leave something as crucial as managerial communication to chance. Talking points and scripts do not generate authentic communication. In my experience, they create a risky number of blubbering idiots who don’t help the organization’s reputation. Only honesty and authenticity will do that, but in our complex worlds, we have to have both the permission and skill to speak honestly and authentically.
Bad news will always be with us. How we handle it determines our credibility and trust.