Speaking Truth to Power


Delivering bad news can be one of the most difficult professional experiences.

That challenge is all the greater when you are sitting across from your boss.  Whether it is the nature of their position, the context of the circumstances or the inherent unpleasantness with communicating negative information, leaders are often left without the important information needed to receive and take quick action on bad news.

The difficulty of delivering bad news is understandable.  It’s an uncomfortable experience that every employee dreads.  Delivering bad news has never been fun and it never will be.  However, doing it well is important; and having difficult conversations the right way—by speaking truth to power—is essential to a quick and quality response and to the growth and success of organizations and employees.  Below are five quick tips on how to have these difficult conversations.

Right Now

Timeliness is one of the most important factors. Timeliness affects nearly every action following a difficult situation and conversation.  When something is discovered and acted upon can determine whether or not that news is a temporary inconvenience or a long term problem.  That is why bad news should be delivered right away, always, so that your boss has as much time as possible to respond, minimize or perhaps even get ahead of a problem.  And while it’s important to deliver bad news as quickly as possible, it’s also important to balance timeliness with an appropriate “Level of Detail,” being careful not to compromise one for the other.

The Devil is in the Details (that are unknown)

In this context important details matter. Upon hearing bad news, doing a self investigation is a necessary step before communicating it to a superior.  Ask yourself: “What do I know?  What don’t I know?  Have I seen this for myself?  Do I know everything that’s knowable?  What’s unknowable?  And how can I find it out?”  Communicating something negative requires the right kinds of information.  This information should not be hearsay and it should not be incomplete.  This is not to say that every situation will have every answer  available immediately.  Sometimes there are fluid situations and unknowns because a situation is unfolding or you do not have the means to find the answer.  This is all okay, as long as you understand and communicate what the unknowns are.  The important part of speaking truth to power is that you’re delivering news with every piece of important information available to you, with honesty, so that your boss can act appropriately.  Perhaps your boss will even have suggestions on how to find out the unknowns.

Context is Everything  

Bad news is just as unpleasant to receive as it is to deliver.  Setting the right context for these difficult conversations can help ease some of the unpleasantness.  One tip for setting the right context is to set the tone that prepares the receiver for the news.  “I have some bad news, can we talk?”  That way, when the talk happens, your boss won’t be taken by surprise.  Surprising someone with bad news can sometimes lead to an emotional reaction that will inhibit the decision making process.  Avoid the surprise even if it’s a brief intro that prepares them for the information.  If at all possible, deliver the news in person.  In this modern age we too often manage by Blackberry in ways that can’t replicate the type of dynamic exchange and connection that a personal discussion has.  Nuance and EQ is often lost in the electronic world.  Don’t avoid tough interactions by thinking that email or text is the answer.  Face to face is the best approach whenever possible.

Cut To The Quick

Clean and concise communication is the rule.  After you’ve gathered every detail you can, have set the best context possible, it’s time to actually deliver the news.  You want to keep this delivery concise and to the point.  A tip for this is to headline first—tell your boss exactly what happened first and get to the important details after.  This technique plays into the “no surprises” rule but it also ensures that the most important point is properly communicated and received.  If bad news is delivered with a drawn-out introduction and over explanation for every step, the news can get lost. Stress can build and frustration sets in before all the facts are even known.  Being direct and succinct in difficult conversations gives your boss the opportunity to digest and decide what information he or she wants next.  Another way to effectively communicate is to use the right tone.  If you’re communicating bad news, it’s important to stay calm, serious and supportive.  Using the right tone also means that you’re respectful of your boss’s authority, who may be in a hurry to interrupt, while being respectfully assertive in delivering news you know he or she will not like but absolutely needs to hear; this is a tricky balancing act that is essential to a difficult conversation and to finding a reasonable resolution.

Photo credit to Mitchell Leff

Photo credit to Mitchell Leff

True Trust  

The last piece of speaking truth to power is trust, something that must be established long before difficult conversations arise.  In terms of delivering difficult news, trust means that there is a mutual understanding that there is no hidden agenda behind your communication.  This type of trust needs to be developed and be there to fall back on when bad news hits.  Trust that you wouldn’t set this tone unless it was important and that time is of the essence.  Trust that both of you can freely express yourselves in the type of forthright manner that ensures all relevant information is shared at that critical time.  It also means that there is a mutual understanding that the information should be unemotionally delivered and received.  This part takes two.  A leader who reacts negatively and projects that to the person communicating the news may chill the delivery of vital information.  Having a well-established sense of trust in the room for the delivery of bad news will keep everyone calm, collected and focused on level-headed next steps.

While I hope difficult conversations never come your way, it’s inevitable that at some point they will.  When you have these conversations, keep in mind the importance of truth, the importance of delivering the right information at the right time in the right way—this could help you keep a bad situation to an unpleasant inconvenience rather than a catastrophe.  These quick tips may help you avoid being that proverbial messenger that gets shot.  What are some of the skills you use to have difficult conversations?

Rich headshot 1

Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.





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