The Professional Way to Deliver Hard News

The hard truth is that at some point in your professional career you will need to deliver news that is negative, critical, or disappointing to someone else. We are humans, after all. This means we’re going to make mistakes and continually adjust from the steep learning curve that is life. Being perfect in an effort to avoid all negative feedback should never be the goal because it simply isn’t attainable. As the employee, vendor, or contractor, the goal should be to do your best work and to be accepting of critical feedback that is delivered in a helpful manner.

To that point, as the employer or manager overseeing someone else, delivering critical feedback (i.e. hard news) will be a staple of your job. This should always come with grace and understanding, but it’s hard nonetheless. How can you make this essential task a little easier and less awkward? Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about delivering what many people call a “crap sandwich”…er I mean “feedback sandwich.”

Start with something good.

Whether the conversation is taking place in-person, by phone/Zoom, or by email, begin on a positive note. This can be a personal compliment, such as something you’ve noted that they are doing well, recognizing their years of service to you, or sharing good news about the company as a whole. This sets the tone that you value their contributions and want to see the relationship continue. This also primes the conversation to be constructive, not merely critical. 

Get to the meat of it.

Don’t spend too much time beating around the bush. Once you’ve offered a complimentary opening to the conversation, dive into what you’re really here to say. Be direct. This shows confidence and leadership. Avoid phrases like “It’s just…” or “I’m a little bit….” as this weakens the statement and leaves room to interpret that you’re not so sure about your stance on the issue. Stay strong! Get to the point in as few words as possible. It’s likely the first time you write out your notes, you’re going to add a lot more filler in to soften the issue, but this isn’t doing anyone any favors. All parties will benefit from a direct conversation, getting through the hard news, and moving on to the next piece. Which is…

Offer a solution – “the sauce.”

The “meat” of the issue but not taste so great, especially if you’re on the receiving end of the “crap sandwich.” If you’re delivering the hard news, consider offering some sauce to go with it in the way of a solution or way to right a wrong. It’s like saying “Hey, I know this criticism doesn’t sit well, so let me offer you something that will allow us to look forward to not having to go through this again in the future.” If you’re bringing a problem to the table, match it with a solution! This is the quality of a good leader and shows a desire to mend issues and work together collaboratively. 

Close on a positive note.

Once you’ve addressed the problem or mistake, and have presented possible solutions to address the issue, complete the “sandwich” with a bottom bun that tastes (i.e. feels) good. You can again compliment the person’s work, skills, or relationship to the business. You can offer an affirmation that you’re confident this won’t be an ongoing problem now that a solution is in place. People want to follow a leader who is kind and constructive. And when hard news is delivered in this manner, it makes it far more likely that the person being addressed will be receptive to the advice – and take it!

Suggest a call to action.

Finally, end with a call to action. This can take many different forms. An obvious one is asking the person to correct the error and update you when this has taken place. If the issue is not task-related, but more a character or behavioral issue, you may suggest that you meet again in a few weeks to discuss progress, and also offer this as an opportunity for them to voice concerns or challenges. One more option for a call to action is for them to create their own suggested plan to correct an issue and prevent it from arising in the future. This empowers a person to take an introspective look at the situation and create a plan they want to follow, and one they believe will work well for the team.

I’m sure you can think of at least one instance where you’ve had to employ similar tactics to deliver hard news. I’d love to hear your personal advice for how you accomplished this professionally and with class. Join the conversation by leaving a  comment below!

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