How to Deliver Bad News at Work; Mindset, Mistakes, & Messages

No One Likes to Give Someone Else Bad News. It’s a Form of Conflict. It’s Hard.

Getting better at how to deliver bad news is important if you are a people manager or leader because people deserve to be treated in the right way and particularly at times when they are about to hear bad news.

In this article, we share the mindset to adopt, the mistakes you could make & how to avoid them, and how to deliver the bad news message effectively.


Adopt the Right Mindset

Know Thy Words

This is about using the right tool for the job. If our mind is in a place of negativity and that this will go badly, it’s a little like a carpenter sawing with a blunt saw. They are likely to do a bad job and hurt themselves and anyone around them.


Ever said, ‘I need to have a difficult conversation with them’? Already your mindset is that it will be ‘difficult. So, before you have even begun it’s not going to be easy. Now, we are not going to kid ourselves that this is going to be an easy conversation and I doubt tricking our mind by replacing the word ‘difficult for ‘easy’ will work.

But how about replacing that word for ‘compassionate’ or ‘supportive’ or ‘direct’? Our mindset will be in a better place to deliver bad news.

Remember this Phrase

Tough on the issue, kind on the person.

Use the SBI Model

The Situation-Behaviour-Impact model provides a very simple way to give feedback that is structured.

Power of the Pause

In our negotiation skills training, we teach the Learners not to be afraid of silence. When great negotiators negotiate they often let the other person talk themselves into trouble. When delivering bad news, don’t fill the silence because the person might be processing what you have said. Bombarding them with more information or repeating what you have said will not make the information be understood better.

Silence is golden.

Know your Conflict Style

According to the Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument we choose one of 5 default behaviours. Know which one you are because you will better understand why you approach conflict the way you do.

Five circles within a graph labelled Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

5 Mistakes of How to Deliver Bad News

  1. Do not allow the conversation to be a negotiation or a persuasion. You have a message and it needs to be delivered. Stay on your message.
  2. ‘Sugar coating’ the message to a point where it loses its worth will create confusion and frustration for you both. Deliver the message respectfully.
  3. Getting it over and done with will come across as not caring. Breathe, take your time, and deliver the message concisely.
  4. Allowing yourself to be drawn into a debate or an argument is not where you want to be. If the decision has been made, tell them.
  5. Delivering the message in a robotic way will not play well either. They want to see that you have empathy for what they are going through.

Delivering the Message in the Right Away

Research from the Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care has identified the key qualities which constitutes the delivery of the right message. There are 4 qualities that are most important:

top view of yellow sending delivering email sign on pink background

1. The News-Giver’s Attitude

Three words that describe a great delivery are; Clarity, Compassion, and Concise. Remember the 3 C’s.

2. The Clarity of the Message

“Clarity is like focusing a strong source of light on your goal to make it more visible. With clarity of purpose comes acceptance of the mission and the job at hand.”

3. Privacy

A person will feel like the spotlight is on them in this conversation, so they will want to feel that no one is looking or eavesdropping.

4. The Person’s Ability to Answer Questions

As part of the trust, equation credibility is very important in this situation. For example, if you are making someone redundant the person will want to be able to ask you questions and not be answered with ‘Ask HR’.

The Money Ball Film with Brad Pitt 

In the film Moneyball about trading baseball players Brad Pitt (Billy), the General Manager advises his new manager, Jonah Hill (Peter) on how to let go of a player.


Minor league baseball team playing baseball game with umpire


I don’t want to develop personal relationships. I need to trade them, send them down and sometimes cut them. You should learn how to do that by the way.


The only way I’d have to cut a player is if you oh come on!


Yeah, let’s practice.




I’m a player, cut me from the roster.




Do it.


This is stupid.


Man-up, Yale.


Fine. Billy, would you have a seat for a moment, I need to talk to you.


I’m already sitting.


I was pretending you weren’t sitting.


But I am. Keep going.


This is the hardest thing there is to do in baseball.


You got that from Bull Durham?




Hitting a curveball is the hardest thing there is to do in baseball but go ahead.


You’ve been a huge part of this team but decisions have to be made that are best for the team, I’m sure you can understand that.


You’re cutting me?


I’m really sorry.


I just bought a house here.


(beat) Well…


Well? That’s all you have to say? My kids just started at a new school, they made friends.


That’s–I’d leave them in school, you don’t want to take them out in the middle of the–


What the hell are you doing?


Are you you or the player?


I’m me. You’re talking about kids and schools and you should’ve been out of the room three minutes ago.


Shouldn’t I tell them that they’ll always be a part of the A’s family?


That makes me feel so good I’m thinking of burning your house down with you in it. These are professional baseball players. You just do it. “Peter, I need to let you go. Jack’s office will handle the paperwork.”

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