Insights & Ideas

A leader’s guide to delivering tough news

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When things are at their worst, use these communication best practices.

Managing a team is often rewarding, but when it’s your job to be the bearer of bad news, being a leader can be hard and heartbreaking. Although giving your team bad news is never going to be easy, here are a few ways to make the process as smooth and supportive as possible.

1. Get all the information you can

To deliver news effectively, you need to be clear on what’s happening yourself. Get (or organize) details about:

  • What, exactly, is happening and how it will affect your team
  • How decisions were made about this issue
  • Who made the decisions (and who was consulted)
  • What other options were discussed (and why they were eliminated)
  • The reasoning behind the final decision s

When you know all the facts, you are better able to communicate confidently and answer questions from your team. Additionally, studies show that people find bad news easier to accept if they think the decision-making process was fair. So, being able to talk about the process and the rationale behind a decision can make a significant difference for your team.

2. Address your own emotions

Maybe you’re the CEO who “made the call.” Maybe you’re a middle-manager delivering a message you don’t agree with. Or, maybe something sad just happened on its own. No matter what the circumstance, communicating bad news is emotional and stressful. As a manager, it’s important that you take care of your own mental health before talking to your team. It can be helpful to:

  • Talk through emotions with a trusted friend or mentor—Vent your emotions (and frustrations) to someone who will help you make sense of the situation.
  • Define a personal purpose for the communication—Whether you’re motivated by “helping your team cope,” “doing good for the company,” or another reason; figure out a way to make the conversation part of a “bigger purpose” you can get behind.

3. Be (really) prepared

Providing bad news is not the time for off-the-cuff speeches. Careful and thorough preparation is critical. Before talking to your team:

  • Create a clear agenda and outline of points to discuss
  • Brainstorm a list of questions team members might have and prepare answers for them
  • Develop a “what’s next” plan that details what the team can expect going forward—include processes, support resources, and opportunities to help the organization move forward (if relevant)
  • Prepare for a variety of responses—sadness, silence, anger, disappointment, etc.
  • Rehearse remarks in front of another person and listen to their feedback

4. Deliver the news clearly and calmly

As a team leader presenting bad news, your primary responsibility is to ensure your team understands the news and its implications. While it’s important to show you care, it’s important that you deliver the news calmly and clearly.

  • Acknowledge that the situation is difficult
  • Get to the point as quickly as possible—using clear language that can’t be misinterpreted (no sugar coating)
  • Explain how the decisions were made that led to this point
  • Provide the team with your “what’s next” plan and focus on what they can do now
  • Answer questions and address concerns (but don’t engage in debate about the decisions)
  • If appropriate, end the meeting with a problem-solving exercise that focuses on how you move forward as a team

5. Keep checking in with your people

After giving people time to process the information, take the time to make sure everyone is ok. Stay available for questions and offer whatever help you can—in team meetings or personal conversations. Showing compassion after bad news hits can have a positive impact on your colleagues’ well-being, your own conscience, and your organization’s future.

At Salo, we regularly help leaders in crisis situations by providing senior consultants in finance, accounting, and HR to help steady the ship. If we can be of any help to your organization during coronavirus or any crisis, connect with us here. 


  1. “An integrative framework for explaining reactions to decisions: Interactive effects of outcomes and procedures”; Psychological Bulletin; American Psychological Association