In conversations with leaders, I hear three major worries as they describe steeling themselves to give bad news. First, they are uncomfortable with the range and depth of emotion likely to be displayed, both by the recipient and by themselves. Second, they feel guilty for bearing news that will be perceived as hurtful or detrimental to another. And finally, almost always, some major unfinished business regarding bad news in the leaders’ own lives lies lurking under the surface of these first two. This unfinished business is the laboratory for those who wish to find a better starting place for serving in bad news situations Pimpandhost.
For the leader who must give bad news, think back about your own experiences of having received bad news. Chances are, your sense of dread comes from disappointments you packed away in the back of your mind before you had completed working them through. They are the baggage that determines your frame of reference and your dread. Those unresolved disappointments are what make you so uncomfortable in giving others bad news.
Track your own evolution through these disappointments until you see the resolve that occurred in the end. Track through as many experiences as necessary until you get it that disappointment offers vital lessons to put us more directly on our own individual pathways. If you are at peace with your own past disappointments, you will have far less baggage that affects you in your leadership role as you deliver bad news.
Then, consider the vantage point from which you will approach the situation. You can offer the person across the desk from you the best service by holding a picture of the what a disappointment looks like. In my mind, it looks like a double helix. One spiral of energy could appear destructive and will seem to threaten the person’s stability. The other spiral offers pictures of new possibility, new lessons, renewed vitality in pursuing the person’s own unique life path.
Holding the two spirals of the helix at the same time – both the appearance of destruction and the appearance of construction allows the person to turn the light onto his or her future. When we hold both simultaneously, the light switch comes under our control.
Of course, there are lots of other things to consider. Your HR folks will guide you on procedure, but right now were talking about where you come from as you carry out those procedures. We’re talking about how you orient yourself and how you set the field of energy around the delivery of bad news to best serve the other person and yourself. Your point of orientation will have a very strong influence on whether the recipient gets stuck on one side or the other of the chaos helix, or whether s/he is able to integrate them into a higher pathway and to turn on the light switch.
No matter how insightful a leader is about healing from disappointment and the opportunity it offers for finding a more coherent life direction, delivering bad news is still difficult. There’s no formula or nor five easy steps that will take the difficulty away.
But then, leaders aren’t ordinary people. Leaders are called to experience life in its multi-dimensionality by the nature of our day-to-day activities. We see our employees, our peers, and our bosses at their best and at their worst. Leaders see the dark side and the light side of organizational life and recognize that all are part of the mix. In essence, organizations are also double helices. We hold the bigger picture of how it all fits together. We are the mirror of the whole.
By being called to see and hold the vast dimensionality of organizational life, self-aware leaders are asked to wake up to their own depths. We see more, and if we integrate what we see, the depth and breadth of our own selves evolve. The more we experience and integrate, the more capable we become. These experiences of being with people in times of turmoil grow us as well as grow them, grooming us for higher challenges yet to come and greater opportunities to serve.