If you read these Leading Thoughts often, then you know I am an optimist. I believe the future is bright—that vaccines will be developed for Covid-19, that economies will bounce back, that we can recover from the severest blows, and that good days are ahead.
This is all in the long term. In the short term, we are facing some difficult days. A harsh winter looms. We are in the midst of economic upheaval as Covid-19 surges and governments fail us. A Harvard expert said that the United States will likely experience more deaths from the pandemic we are in than the total U.S. dead from World War II. I think this is a given. There were 407,000 U.S. deaths in World War II. We are at 267,000 Covid-19 deaths as I write these words.
This means, of course, more economic loss, more social upheaval, and more grief.
My purpose here is not to depress you. My purpose is to prepare you, and also to guide you a bit in one of the vital arts of leadership. You will, as part of your role, have to deliver bad news. You will have to announce the closing of that branch in Arizona or the laying off of 12% or the restructuring that won’t be easy. You may even have to announce the death of a beloved team member—though I hope not. All leadership requires such things, particularly in this season of our history.
Since this duty is thrust upon you, you should get good at it. Here is how.
First, be sure of your facts. In crises, people get mushy in their thinking. They confuse myth with fact. Know your facts. If you lay off a division of your firm citing certain “facts,” and those facts turn out not to be true, you will embitter people and taint your corporate culture. You will also diminish yourself as a leader. So know your facts.
Second, don’t delegate the delivery of bad news. As best you can, own the duty of announcing troubling news. Obviously, the CEO of a company of 100,000 can’t handle all layoffs personally. He or she can make sure these announcements are made by the leader nearest to the people affected. In other words, close the distance between those receiving bad news and those who decided it had to be delivered.
Third, be compassionate. You may not be able to change the difficult circumstances, but you can show you care. I once handled the difficult firing of a friend. While announcing it to the larger staff, I found myself fighting tears. I was embarrassed until a team member later said that to know I felt deeply about what was happening made all the difference. Now, obviously, you don’t want to fake emotion. Yet do allow what you feel to flow freely. People can handle hard things. They can’t handle hard-hearted leaders.
Fourth, remember the Churchill Factor. Remember that our man Winston always talked about a brighter future when delivering bad news. He would give the statistics from a recent lost battle, but then talk about our grandchildren’s world and “broad, sunlit uplands,” and how future generations would speak of our “Finest Hour.” It made all the difference. Consider: statistics reveal that most people who are laid off or fired, if it is handled right, end up in better circumstances over time. Keep this kind of information in mind and this poetry at the center every time you have to deliver bad news.
Fifth, keep connection. We have a human tendency to disconnect from people going through trouble. They get fired or suffer a death or battle a disease, and people pull away. I’ve endured this kind of agonizing distance at hard times. So have you. I strongly urge you to keep connection. Keep encouraging, helping, checking in. And when a victory comes for someone who is no longer with your firm, celebrate it. Report it. I know a CEO who will get up at company meetings and say, “All of you know that Jenna had to leave our firm last May. Well, let me tell you what amazing things have happened for her since.” The report that follows shows the humanity of the firm, is encouraging to all the team members, reduces fear, and puts big-heartedness at the core of the organization. The ongoing connection also makes all the difference in the life of the person who had to leave. Stay connected. It’s the right thing to do.