Fellow citizens of the global economy, we need to talk. Despite some encouraging news, we’re not out of the woods yet. Economists and historians say the economic upticks we’ve seen lately may be just a blip in a prolonged downturn.
As companies continue to reduce costs however they can, there will be more layoffs, more furloughs, more budget cuts, and more career-defining projects canceled. Even New York City may be forced to lay off workers.
If you’re in a leadership role, you’ll have the unenviable task of relaying the bad news, which is like walking a tightrope. Speak too bluntly and you’ll make the other person’s pain even worse. Sugarcoat the news and you risk leaving out important information or offering false hope.
However, there’s a way to deliver bad news that is both compassionate and candid. It’s called the SPIKES protocol, and you’ve been experiencing it in action since you started reading this article. (Keep reading, and you’ll understand how.)
Developed by a team of psychiatrists, oncologists, and medical researchers, SPIKES is a six-part framework that guides doctors through difficult conversations with patients, like delivering a cancer diagnosis, in a humane way. While losing your job or your budget is hardly as perilous as navigating a life-threatening disease, SPIKES translates well to an office environment. With practice and preparation, leaders can use it to break the bad news without causing their team members (or themselves) undue stress.
The SPIKES protocol, step-by-step
SPIKES was inspired by a body of research showing that, although thoughtful communication from doctors can reduce a patient’s distress, most doctors feel unskilled in this area. The same can be said for the typical office: empathetic managers are better at difficult conversations, but until recently, empathy didn’t feature in manager training. SPIKES bridges these gaps.
Here’s how you can put it to use if you need to inform a team member they’re being laid off or that the funding for their project was cut.
Step 1: Set up the conversation
“Conversation” is the key word here. Don’t do this in an email. Take time beforehand to anticipate the questions they’ll have and prepare answers. You may even want to think through some of the language or phrasing you want to use.
Choose an appropriate setting – ideally, an office or conference room with a door that closes for privacy. If being physically in the same room isn’t possible, a video call will at least bring you face to face. Sitting down will let them know you’re not trying to rush through this, and putting away your phone signals that they are the most important person in your world right now.
I invited you into conversation in the first line of this article by saying “we need to talk”.
Step 2: Assess the other person’s Perception of the situation
Being called into a surprise one-on-one conversation with the boss will put most people on edge. Your job is to figure out exactly how freaked out they are and what they already know so you can tailor your delivery and get to a shared understanding of the situation.
Ask questions like “What have you heard so far about the budget for this coming fiscal year?” or “Did you have a chance to read our earnings report and forecast?” Be sure to correct any misunderstandings before proceeding.
Since this article isn’t an interactive conversation, I used the first paragraph to articulate what I think might be your perception of the global economy, based on recent news headlines.
Step 3: Invite them to hear more
In truth, this is information you are required to convey – they can’t just opt out of hearing it. However, you can let them decide how much detail they want to receive right now: “You’re probably wondering what this is all about. Do you want to hear the background, or just get straight to the main point?” If they choose to skip the background information, let them know you’re happy to share it with them some other time.
Ok, ok. I skipped this step when writing the intro to this article because you can stop reading whenever you like. The fact that you’re still reading now means you chose to hear more information.
Step 4: Give them Knowledge
This is where you break the news. Be straightforward and use plain-spoken language. Don’t insult them by trotting out jargon like “right-sizing” when they’re being laid off or “back-burnered” when their project is being canceled.
Remember that the merits of the decision are not up for debate in this conversation. Even if you think upper management made the wrong call, keep that to yourself for now so as not to create confusion or offer false hope. But do be as transparent about the decision making process as you can: who was involved, what other options were considered, why this was ultimately the outcome.
There were two pieces of bummer news in the introduction: the fact that more cuts are likely in our future, and that you, dear reader, will be the one to tell your team about if they’re affected. Note how I conveyed all that in less than two sentences.
Step 5: Empathize and create space for their emotions
Now that the hard part is over, here comes the other hard part. They may be in shock or disbelief, they may be in tears. Whatever is going on with them, make space for it. Acknowledge that what you just told them was hard to hear and invite them to express their feelings: “If you’re comfortable sharing your thoughts with me, I’m here to listen.”
Then let them know you’ve heard them by making a connecting statement such as “I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear, and understand why you’re concerned about [supporting your family / your prospects for a promotion].” Let the conversation continue in this vein until the intensity of their emotions has died down and they’re composed enough to discuss the next steps.
I demonstrated empathy in the second paragraph by acknowledging that delivering bad news feels like walking a tightrope.
Step 6: Summarize and strategize
The more you can help the other person make a plan from here, or at least help them see the path forward, the better you’ll both feel. In the case of layoffs, you might offer to give them feedback on their resume or connect them with a recruiter you know. But be sure to sum up the conversation first: “As I said, you’ll need to clear out your desk as soon as we’re done talking. Then, if you want to chat about where you might take your career from here, I’d be happy to meet for coffee next week.” In the case of budget cuts or a canceled project, give the other person a day to absorb the news. Then circle back and ask for their thoughts on how to best move forward.
In the last two paragraphs of the introduction, I ease your anxiety about the future by letting you know there’s a reliable method for delivering bad news that you can take advantage of.
Don’t wait to deliver the news
As a leader, you not only have to walk the not-too-blunt-not-too-soft tightrope, you also have to walk the line between supporting your team members and supporting a decision from higher-up. You might feel caught in the middle, and want to put off relaying the news until you’ve sorted out your own feelings about it. Even with a clear head, it’s tough to deal with the other person’s distress, especially when there’s little you can do to make things better for them. You might also be nervous that they’ll “blame the messenger”, which makes you want to avoid the conversation even more.
The irony is that delaying bad news erodes the other person’s trust in you. They’ll wonder how you were able to look them in the eye when you knew but weren’t telling them. And they’ll resent the fact that, had you told them sooner, they would’ve had more time to prepare for whatever is next.
Most people prefer to receive bad news as soon as possible and in a straightforward way. This also saves you from the burden of carrying it around longer than necessary. Turns out your dad was right: “ripping the band-aid off” really is the best thing for everyone involved. Especially if you’re standing by, ready to offer a Kleenex.
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