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5 Ways Employees React to Bad News—and How to Respond

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Credit: istockphoto.com/fizkes

We’ve all received bad news at some point in our lives. Whatever the cause, we all know how badly it feels and how hard it hits us. It’s no different for employees in the workplace.

Financial hardship, mergers, restructures and dismissals are commonplace. It’s only natural for staff to feel uncertain in these times. But uncertainty is bad for business. Employees don’t thrive when they feel nervous, vulnerable and confused.

You might remember the famous fallout from a string of bad news delivered at Yahoo! a few years back. It involved all remote workers being forced to relocate to an office or quit, and managers instructed to rank all employees, giving a certain percentage failing grades. Communication to staff was poorly handled, staff resented the treatment and company performance was hit hard.

Being able to effectively communicate negative news is a critical communication skill. This is especially true today, when the “employee voice” is so powerful. It’s essential for maintaining morale, ensuring business competitiveness and protecting the brand.

To me, the key lies in understanding the psychology of how people respond when receiving bad news. I’ve found there are five key reactions employees have to bad news—and proven ways that internal communication teams should respond.

1. Feeling ambushed

When bad news comes, it’s often without warning. Situations develop quickly, and often responses must be as quick. Employees can feel taken by surprise and fear being out of the loop.

Response: Be prepared, be honest and be clear; don’t keep employees in the dark.

Frequent and honest communications are essential. If there’s a burning issue that needs addressing, be up front, but explain it may require time to work through.

Release new information quickly. Employees should always hear company news from the company first. Nothing is worse for morale than learning about changes from the media, family or friends.

Bad news is always best delivered face-to-face. Staff need to see the conviction, hear the sincerity and feel the trust conveyed by your management team. If your company operates a dispersed or remote workforce, video messages from senior leaders are a much more effective option than a cold, corporate email.

2. Experiencing grief

Employees receiving bad news at work experience an emotional response similar to grief. Like grief, it can be immersive and long-lasting, and provoke anxiety about what’s coming next.

Response: Recognize the cycle of acceptance and communicate appropriately through each stage.

Learn more

Join Philip Nunn’s presentation, on how understanding psychology will improve your internal communication at the 2020 IABC World Conference, happening 14-17 June in Chicago.

The human response to receiving bad news follows something called the Change Curve. This series of stages progresses through blaming others, blaming oneself, uncertainty, acceptance, problem solving and moving on. Understanding this helps you predict how employees are likely to react. Different communication styles can then be employed to ease transition.

Focus on moving employees through each step—don’t try to immediately seek commitment. The length of time it takes to progress through the journey will vary depending on how momentous the bad news was, how wide-reaching its effects and how resilient the employees involved are.

Emphasize the importance of wellness and seeking support during this time.

3. Fixating on headlines

When confronted with bad news, there’s a tendency to fixate on the headlines and miss the detail—something called “inattentional blindness.”

Response: Communicate often to reinforce key messages, even if there’s not much to report.

Keep track of when staff last heard from you. Schedule regular updates or follow-up meetings, even if you don’t expect to have anything “new” to report. If you don’t know what the likely outcome of any negative situation will be, set up variations of messages and then publish them when the information is confirmed.

Use a campaign approach to maintain message momentum. Create a series of messages that are drip-fed and repeated over a defined period. This structured approach raises staff awareness of the details, informs them of the evolving situation and involves them in the resolution.

4. Shooting the messenger

A common reaction when receiving bad news is to attack the messenger, rather than the message. Delivering bad news won’t win you any friends!

Response: Maintain a neutral tone in both voice and expression. Avoid emotions.

Researchers identified that the two most important factors in delivering bad news well were facts and fairness. That is, providing adequate and reasonable explanations, and treating employees with dignity. Doing this removes any impression that the messenger is not impartial.

Frame the bad news in a way that shows clarity and honesty of intentions, without involving emotions. Employees will accept the news more readily if they believe the integrity of the messenger—and by extension, the message.

The result of not following neutrality is that staff may suspect you have an ulterior motive or an “axe to grind.” This is when they’ll dig their heels in and the reaction can escalate into resistance.

5. Craving reassurance

Feeling vulnerable after receiving bad news creates a need for reassurance. Humans are social animals, so employees will want to seek support by sharing the news with trusted peers.

Response: Encourage feedback and respond to every point raised—no exceptions.

Include channels for feedback and discussion at the same time as the first announcement. This signals goodwill and a desire to listen. Invite employees to share concerns with you confidentially. This strengthens the personal connection and provides time to prepare a more considered response.

Employee discussion forums can provide a way for staff to explore ideas and provide feedback. They can also help leaders gauge feeling within the organization. The type of questions being asked (for example “Is my job safe?” versus “What career opportunities are there?”) give a good indication of how people are feeling.

Bringing concerns out into the open lets you address them quickly, but you must also pay close attention to ensure live conversations don’t quickly spiral out of control.

Understanding human nature is key to successful communication. When negative news must be delivered, this allows us to do so in the most appropriate, sensitive and effective way—making the best of bad news.

Philip Nunn

Philip Nunn is general manager, business, at SnapComms, a leading internal communication platform, used daily by 2 million employees in 75 countries worldwide. In this role, Philip leads an international team of internal communication experts who specialize in helping large organizations meet the challenge of effective employee communication. Philip has a background in product innovation, business development and customer service, as well as a passion for improving employee engagement through understanding what makes people tick.

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