When It’s Your Job to Present Bad News

fear4Many of us deal with numbers for a living — and this role poses unique challenges. As a corporate researcher, I’ve had the responsibility of analyzing customer/employee opinions and developing meaningful explanations. Sometimes, I would crunch a data set that would put me in quite a stressful predicament — as an explanation did not exist that would make the results more palatable. My heart would actually begin to race, as I saw the initial tabulations. There were big problems to address —  and I dreaded that I would be the one to initially deliver the news.

Strategy is key
Psychology can play a major role in these situations. Personally, it wasn’t the actual numbers that unnerved me — it was the uncomfortable “push back” that I anticipated when presenting the findings. I realized that someone in the audience would likely want to “kill, question, or at least injure the messenger” (which just happened to be me). I was fully aware, that the fallout from the data could hit like a hailstorm, if I didn’t properly map out a communication path.

Prepare for panic mode
Unfavorable numbers can throw any group into emotional chaos — so be prepared to lead the group to a safer ground. When presenting unfavorable results, many can quickly become very uncomfortable. (Often, you can almost feel the tension building in the room).  Key here, is keeping the group calm and and building on the information presented.  “I let my audience know that a rear view mirror is small for a reason.” says Marianne Rose Hines, Senior VP of Sales at Byram Heath. “Your windshield is larger, as it is a view of what lies ahead. If you focus too much upon the rear view, you can actually put the organization in jeopardy.”

Numbers are a snapshot in time as to where you stand. But, the information is only as helpful as the strategy that follows. Encourage your group to focus on what can be done to positively impact the future — as panic can quickly become a large reservoir of wasted energy.

Here are a few other techniques to consider:

  • Craft your opening statements carefully. Prepare your audience for what is to come. This includes helping them put the results in perspective and take a balanced view of the implications.
  • Engage you audience. Avoid a developing “you” vs. “them” scenario — and reinforce your role as role as communicator. Remind the audience often, that you are playing on the same team.
  • Don’t sugar coat results. Be direct and attempt to stay on message. The numbers are simply the numbers —and  staying true to them is the first step in improving future outcomes.
  • Remind the audience that information is power. What we do not know can hurt us. Information on our radar — is information that can be acted upon. Point out that what the group doesn’t know, can become increasingly problematical as time goes on.
  • Keep the group forward focused. Crying over spilled milk never, ever helps — so attempt to get beyond the initial shock and move into “strategy mode”. Always attempt to keep the group moving forward. If someone becomes “stuck” in negative mode, try to re-direct their efforts.
  • Present solution “starters”. Provide information to help the group begin to solve the issues. Guide the group to the areas that can be impacted.

Finally, always offer to meet privately with members of the group to take a closer look at their specific situation. Many may require  time to process the data and weigh the implications. This gesture is often appreciated, and can lead to an open discussion of  potential solutions.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. You also can connect with her on Twitter and Linkedin.

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