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3 Ways Managers Can Deliver Difficult News


Thu Sep 01 2016

3 Ways Managers Can Deliver Difficult News-4e660f331d81a4ba4b059e68e3007ce8e1d6abc30f7e2a8d0e5f0a449426865c

For all of the 23 years we have had corporate email, we have heard stories of blatant rudeness when people are annoyed. Yet many colleagues—even managers—still don’t exercise restraint. They fire off verbal missiles that blast the reader for a perceived mistake or oversight, displaying no empathy or regard for extenuating circumstances.

Consider this example from an executive:


Mary, I am beyond disappointed. I am mad about your email. You committed to have the analysis completed by the end of December. … Is this your standard? Are you going to do your job or do I need to get someone else to finish the project?

Occasionally, we all have to deliver news that the reader will not be pleased to receive. The key is to do it in a way that achieves the desired results—and also preserves the relationship. Serious conflicts or disciplinary issues call for a face-to-face conversation, but even those scenarios typically require some sort of follow-up communication in writing.

When expressing your dissatisfaction or annoyance, your intention is not to unload your anger. It is to induce a change in behavior, so you need to motivate the reader to accept your point of view. Whether you are writing or speaking, here are a few suggestions for conveying unpleasant news.

Package Your Message Effectively

  • Open with a neutral statement. Begin with fact-based information that the reader or listener cannot argue. Make it somewhat positive—or at least neutral—information, to avoid alienating the person immediately. In other words, you want to ease into the conversation. 

  • Remember to explain why. People are more accepting of disappointing news if they know why. 

  • Deliver the bad news. 

  • Provide helpful suggestions to remedy the situation.

Use a Professional Tone

The tone of a message refers to the emotional connotations of words and statements, the exaggerated use of punctuation (!!!), and the bluntness of some short sentences.

  • Avoid “red flag” words such as failed (or failure), careless, sloppy, error, or neglect. 

  •  Avoid negative questions like “What were you thinking?”  

  • Be tactful—so you are more likely to achieve your desired results. 

  • If you need to emphasize a point, don’t be rude or sarcastic. 

  •  Be professionally direct; firm but polite. 

  •  Always treat the audience with respect.

Use “I” or “We” Statements

Use “you” cautiously, because it can sound accusatory. Opt for “I” or “we” whenever possible, because “I” avoids putting the person on the defensive, and “we” sounds more collaborative.


Instead of this: “You should have spoken with me before changing the agenda.”

Try this: “In the future, talking about the agenda before we make changes will be helpful.”

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