The workplace today communicates electronically, at the speed of light, and largely in writing. This wasn’t always the case, but there’s no sense moaning about that fact. In fact, it’s become so common to use tools like email, text, and Instant Messaging that we’re kind of numb to the effect of our words on our readers. Let’s be clear: there are times to use these tools to break bad news, and times when it’s inappropriate.
My personal favorite story about inappropriate usage involves my wife, The Duchess. She was once fired over Yahoo Messenger. Think about that. Not only was this employer rude and cowardly (he didn’t want to confront her directly, even over the phone) but was too cheap to invest in an internal IM system: they insisted people use their personal account for business. Obviously, not a great loss as employers go, but still. Yeesh.
That’s a particularly egregious example, but there are simpler examples. We’ve all gotten an email with the subject line: Sad News. Okay, quick… what’s the email about? You’ve probably already braced yourself for the news that someone in the organization has passed away. It may or may not be someone you know, and it may or may not impact you personally. It’s just evolved that way, and without any kind of organizational agreement has become the way we handle these things. Most of the time, it’s just fine.
So when should we use these impersonal but efficient tools to break bad news? While there is no absolute right or wrong (I lied. There is. Don’t fire people by IM.), here are some guidelines worth following:
- Does the news impact the entire organization or team, or only an individual or small number of people? Given work schedules, time zones and the laws of physics, it may be impossible to reach every person individually. Not only that, but if Bob in Denver passed away, and I’ve never met him, the news is going to impact me differently than it will Bob’s teammates. Those most impacted should hear the news in a more sympathetic way (in person, a one-on-one phone or video call) than those who are merely being updated.
- Can I get the information to those who really need it before telling everyone else? Whenever possible, the people most directly impacted should hear it before the rest of the organization, and probably in a more personal, richer way.
- Is speed critical to avoid getting caught up in the rumor mill? Sometimes you know that you should deliver the news in person… or at least verbally. A web meeting or conference call is probably appropriate, because there will be questions, concerns, venting and the need to discuss what’s occurred. These things can take time to organize. Include when and how the follow-up discussion will occur. (“I know there will be questions. There will be an all-hands meeting at_________.”) You are not simply dropping a bomb and leaving people to decide what their reaction should be.
- Can you give a heads-up by IM or Text, then follow up in an appropriate way? The beauty of IM and Text, is you can get the part of the message out as quickly as possible (something’s happened, I need to talk to you) while not being insensitive to the reader. If you’ve ever gotten bad news while waiting for a flight or with the family, you understand why making sure the reader is properly prepared and able to process the information is so important.
Really, this isn’t a difficult decision to make. How would you like to be given bad news? So do that for others, even if it’s inconvenient, painful, or uncomfortable.
Oh, and don’t fire people on their own messaging account. Just don’t.
Email is the one of the most powerful communication tools that you have as a remote leader. And as is showcased above, it’s a tricky tool to use effectively and successfully. Check out this powerful program to learn strategies that will help you to be more efficient, productive and successful in all of your written and electronic communications!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.