Sunday, October 31, 2010

Leadership: Learning to Give Bad News in a Good Way.

Back in May 2003, over 2,500 people at the British Amulet Group learnt that they'd lost their jobs, when the company fired them by sending a text message. The message said, in part, "you are being made redundant with immediate effect”.

In 2006 a British company defended its decision to sack one of its staff members by SMS, claiming it was keeping in touch with the youth culture. The text message said: "We will not require your services anymore....Thank you for your time with us." In the same year, the US consumer electronics retailer RadioShack laid off 400 employees via email. “The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated,” the ominous message supposedly read.

In 2010 Shayne Bolsher, a 39 year-old manager at Leicestershire's Fife Fine Foods, in the UK, was stunned to get his week's notice, in the form of a text message from his boss and employers have also used Facebook to deliver employees the bad news. Chelsea Taylor discovered that she had been 'let go' via a message posted to her Facebook wall by her manager.

Worse than the above is the manager who will avoid giving any form of bad news and will ignore the issue hoping it (or you) will go away. This doesn’t just have to do with being fired, but can be, as simple as, not responding to a request to talk about your future, or a recommendation you would like to make. Rather than explaining why they won’t have the meeting or discussion, they just avoid you and the issue.

This approach, though maybe less stressful for the manager, has a negative impact on the culture, motivation, commitment and respect of the employee or employees involved, (including their fellow colleagues that they share the experience with).

Surprisingly business might be able to learn something about the management and communication of bad news from the medical industry – an area where bad news can be much more serious than being fired, and can involve discussions about personal mortality.

In a 2005 article by Robert Buckman, MD, PhD, entitled, ‘breaking bad news: the SPIKES strategy;’ he describes a basic strategy for communicating bad news and suggests ways to assess the situation as it evolves.

As he explains when giving bad news to a client it’s important to “show empathy, explore the patient’s understanding and acceptance of what he or she has just learned, and validating that patient’s feelings can provide much-needed support to the patient, an essential psychological intervention for managing distress and helping the patient face the treatment decisions ahead. Although breaking bad news will never be easy, having a plan of action and knowing that you can support your patient through a difficult period should help considerably,” (p.138). Maybe these basic principles of communication apply to giving bad news in business, as much as anywhere else?

It’s interesting to note that in 1998, at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, approximately 400 oncologists attended a session on breaking bad news. The oncologists were polled about various aspects of communication skills and training. Less than 5% of those present stated that they had received any training in breaking bad news. More than 66% indicated that they had to break bad news between 5 and 20 times a month; 74% indicated they did not have a specific approach planned for breaking bad news. More than 90% felt that the most difficult aspect of the communication was handling the emotions that arise during the interview, (Buckman, 2005, p.138). These responses may be just as applicable in business, as very few managers receive training in how to give bad news to employees.

The SPIKES strategy involves six core elements to consider before, during and after giving bad news;

1) Setting – which relates to the environment in which the bad news will be given; and the approach to be used, which would include being attentive and calm;
2) Perception – find out the perception of the person about to receive the ‘bad news’; are they worried, what have they heard already (via another manager or the ‘grapevine’);
3) Invitation – find out whether they want all the detail;
4) Knowledge – warn the employee that bad news is coming;
5) Empathy – sometimes it can be tempting to downplay the situation and withhold information; since this can reduce the stress for you and the employee. But this is not wise as it will only cause problems later, as the employee ‘receives’ more information;
6) Strategy and Summary – in conclusion, make sure that you summarise the bad news and that it is fully understood. Also, when necessary, agree further action and/or communication steps.

The SPIKES approach may not translate directly into a business model for every leader in every industry, but it gives a basic approach that can be modified and adapted for different situations, (especially where no plan or basic steps exist).

Remember the old saying – treat people like you would like to be treated yourself. If you have to give any form of bad news, have the courage and conviction to do it face-to-face, following the guidelines given above.


Buckman, R, A. (2005) Breaking bad news: the S-P-I-K-E-S strategy. Community Oncology, March/April, p.138-142.

No comments:

Post a Comment