Q: What’s the best way to tell your direct reports about a management decision they won’t like, when you don’t agree with the decision either?
Dear Middle Manager,
Like the erstwhile philosophers The Rolling Stones are fond of reminding us, you can’t always get what you want. That’s especially true at work, and goes double for employees sitting far down the executive totem pole. Decisions made at the top are often the final word on a subject, and may not be the word the rest of the organization wanted to hear.
Have to spread the word about an impending layoff, drop the ball about a reduction in benefits, or sell the idea of a merger or corporate reorganization? Got to break the news that long-awaited promotion won’t be forthcoming, or that there’s going to be a drop in billable hours? These types of operating changes are often among the hardest to explain, and the hardest to empathize with as a middle manager. And though the decisions may be what’s best for the organization, they might very well be among the least popular decisions with employees.
So how do you deliver news to colleagues when it’s not the news they were hoping for, or news you’re keen on delivering? The answer is threefold: Be short, be straightforward, and be empathetic. While never easy to get the message out, you’ll find that being honest and respectful with coworkers is the best policy.
Here are a few simple guidelines you can follow to help achieve better results for all parties involved:
Sit down with your own supervisors prior to connecting with your subordinates. Go over the questions your team is likely to have about the information, and the meaningful and substantive responses you can give. Have any important documentation—fact sheets, charts, etc.—ready to go in advance of discussions with colleagues receiving bad news; and ensure the materials are designed to clearly and simply present information in an understandable manner.
Be prepared to take time to walk through all the changes with your team. Determine when and where to best break the news, and the context in which you can do it most humanely. A casual coffee with team members away from the office, for example, might feel more appropriate than a series of one-on-ones at your desk. And practice breaking the bad news (hint: a video camera can help with the critique) before delivering it, as body language and non-verbal cues can influence others’ reactions. It pays to be calm, confident, and factual, while also empathetic—no one wants to come off like a robot here.
It’s important to maintain your composure when conveying others’ wishes. Do not contradict organizational choices that you disagree with, and maintain respect for those who have made the decisions. Let colleagues know how much care and consideration went into these choices, and that decision-makers considered other options extensively before concluding what they felt was best for the enterprise.
If workers are aware you don’t concur with these choices, be upfront about it. You can always say it wasn’t the choice that you might have made, but that it’s what leadership has decided is best for the organization, and that you’ll work with colleagues to do your best to implement these updates. And make certain your direct reports know that the door remains open for you and your team to offer suggestions and insights to the leadership team as you go about the process.
The vaguer you are with your team, the more disconcerting things will be for them. As best you can, provide hard facts that help explain the rationale behind any given decision and its coming impact. If details haven’t been discussed or provided to you by upper management, or you’re not at liberty to share insights at this time, it’s ok to say so—and point out that you’ll continue to seek answers as situations evolve.
Likewise, it’s important to let colleagues know that you remain at their disposal to help with any additional questions that they may have. Be sure to offer reassurance wherever possible as well: It’s natural for human beings to assume the worst, especially in the absence of other insights. Any helpful perspective and positive feedback you can offer will be of assistance, provided the insights are grounded in hard fact. If things aren’t certain at the moment, offer whatever information you do have, and details on when more information might be available.
Be clear about the fact that a decision has been made, and make it apparent that you won’t allow others to waffle when it comes to implementing these choices. Be direct and upfront about what you will and won’t expect employees to do once you’ve put the word out. (For example, you might expect that they will reach out with further questions and keep forging ahead, while expecting they won’t fire up the rumor mill or start worrying when there’s no impending need to.)
Provide clear parameters about how and when it’s ok to vent, noting that workers will undoubtedly want to blow off steam on the heels of unpopular decisions. And don’t allow yourself to be boxed into answering questions or offering assurances that you don’t have the facts or the authority to support. It’s better to let others know when you don’t have an answer, and that you’ll be back in touch once you’ve had a chance to do more research and follow up.
Face it: No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, especially when it’s a decision they disagree with. But sometimes the best way to handle things when they don’t go your way, and you don’t have the power to amend them, is to simply go with the flow. With any luck, you’ll eventually get the opportunity to present new facts and feedback that offer a more ready chance to change the situation.
Do you have a workplace etiquette question? Submit it to Scott by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.