How good leaders share bad news…

Difficult Communications

One of the things that sets strong leaders apart is that they personally show up in a decisive and intentional way, no matter how difficult the situation is.

There are lots of situations when a leader is faced with not having a happy story to tell. Or they have an outright disappointing story. Or they are unable to tell a complete story amidst a tidal wave of worry and questions.

So what does a leader do in these situations?

A weak leader withdraws

They think, I have no information I can share, or the information will upset or disappoint people, so I will wait till I have something tangible I can share. Or I’ll wait till I have better news. Or I’ll just let the official channels take care of the disappointing news and not share it personally.

A strong leader shows up

A strong leader will always show up and will always communicate no matter what the situation, good or bad.

When people are worried, uncertain, or there is bad news, good leaders communicate more, not less.

As a leader, I learned that the regularity of communication is the most powerful part — even more than the content. I recently wrote an article about this that included a funny story about what happened when I missed a single communication.

If rumors start and communication stops, people will fill the absence of communication with something much worse than what is true.

And this dynamic of people filling in the blanks is even more pronounced when there in fact IS bad news to share.

An example of strong leadership in communicating

A corporate change. There is a layoff coming.

Imagine this situation. You’ve all probably experienced this from one side or another at some point. Everyone knows there is a layoff coming, though the news is not official.

As a leader you are told that you MAY NOT discuss this until a date in the future. In the meantime, the rumors are starting, the gossip is flowing, and the questions and fear are building.

In this difficult situation what strong leader does is to communicate. Something. Anything.

The idea here is that to say nothing is not acceptable, and is in fact damaging. Doing nothing in this situation is not a neutral act. It’s a damaging act.

By simply showing up for a communication in a difficult time, you are communicating loads of positive things to your organization.

There is a positive impact of the communication even if the communication itself seems useless.

For example:

I know you are hearing rumors about a layoff. I am hearing them too. I don’t have any official news I can share with you right now, but I’m here to tell you that–I’m here.

I know you are frustrated, and you have a right to be frustrated since I can not put this rumor to rest one way or the other. But what I’m going to do personally right now, is to stay focused on [insert ruthless priorities].

I promise to tell you information as soon as I have it. Now I am here to try and answer any of your questions, but I can not promise you that you will be satisfied with my answers. But let’s give it a try.

It’s worth it

While it might feel that is not worth doing because you are not able to answer all the questions they have directly, it’s important to understand the messages you are sending by being willing to do even this much. You are saying with your presence:

I’m the leader, and I see you. I see what you are concerned about and I’m concerned too.

Not doing this has the potential of sending messages like: I don’t see you, I don’t understand, I don’t care, I am checked out, I am clueless…

Even if you can’t give people the information they are demanding, you can give them your honest attention and concern. It goes a long way.

This article may seem like a bit of a downer, but I think it’s SO important as a leader to show respect for others by communicating directly even when it is difficult.

Choosing to avoid an awkward, difficult communication may seem more comfortable in the moment (for you), but you are always causing more worry and stress for everyone involved.

Even if you can’t deliver all the news, or if you can’t deliver good news, stand up, show up, and say something.

What do you think?

What do you think about these ideas? What would you add? Join the conversation about this on my Facebook page.

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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor.
She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

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