Leadership and career

5 Good Ways to Deliver Bad News to an Employee

By September 9, 2016 No Comments

By: Maurice Gilbert

Think about the last time you had a performance review. Chances are, you skimmed through a page of positive comments (or at least neutral to positive) and directed your focus entirely on the few negative notes. Never mind your superior’s glowing account of how nimbly you handled a difficult client or how fearlessly you led your team through some recent period of upheaval. No, you fixated on the “Needs Improvement” column and his note about your need to delegate more effectively, right?

Your angst in this area perhaps has less to do with career survival than with survival in general. After all, we’re biologically programmed to avoid the negative to prevent us from making the same (potentially fatal) bad decision twice (“Look! A saber-toothed tiger! Look! A poisonous mushroom!”).

When we’re triggered by negative stimuli, we tend to act in ways that will put the experience behind us rather than in ways that will reveal what caused the situation in the first place. Examples: we quickly blame someone else for the unpleasantness, we rationalize our poor choices or we minimize the consequences of the damaging event.

The result? Neither learning – nor change – takes place.

As a manager, it’s helpful to recognize this phenomenon among our team members. In “Be Excellent at Anything,” (Simon and Schuster, 2010) Tony Schwartz described “negativity bias” and illustrates the importance of addressing it:

“Because bad is stronger than good, triggers leave a strong memory trace. Our core emotional need is to feel secure. Challenges to our self-worth do the opposite; they make us feel devalued and insecure. Most of us find such feelings uncomfortable at best and intolerable at worst.  Much as we aspire to feel good about ourselves regardless of what others say, our sense of self-worth is profoundly influenced by the degree to which others respect us.”

Here are some tips for serving up with the bad with the good:

Lead with the positive

Find at least one thing you can praise the employee for doing well. Starting off with the negative puts your employee on the defensive from the beginning.

Focus on the performance, not the employee

Even a subtle alteration in your wording can influence the way your message is received. Try, “An area of your performance that needs improvement is…,” rather than, “An area where YOU need improvement is…”

Give specific examples – plus ways to improve

Blanket statements regarding the employee’s shortcomings can trigger the defensive behaviors described earlier. Instead, describe specific situations where decision-making went awry, along with an alternate example of how the situation could have been handled.

Provide an improvement plan

Develop an action plan to help the employee produce the desired performance. This can circumvent defensive behaviors as well as serving as a roadmap for improved performance.

Invite feedback

Finally, ask for feedback – and actually listen to it. The employee who feels respected and valued in this way stands a far greater chance of learning from his mistakes.


Maurice GilbertMaurice Gilbert is Managing Partner of Conselium Executive Search, which specializes in placing Compliance Officers and Legal Counsel for clients in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific. Maurice is also CEO of Corporate Compliance Insights, a worldwide publication devoted to governance, risk and compliance issues. Maurice can be reached at maurice@conselium.com or maurice@corporatecomplianceinsights.com.

Published by Conselium Executive Search, the global leader in compliance search.  

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