Delivering bad news is, unfortunately, just part of the leader’s job. It’s going to happen. When people work remotely, and are scattered across geography and time zones, it can be difficult to manage that in a way that not only gives everyone the news they need, but the chance to respond appropriately and feel like they’re part of the team.
The simplest rule, is that the more important the news to the recipient, the richer the communication method should be. My wife was once fired by Yahoo Messenger. Let’s assume that was an inappropriate tool for the message in question. But what tool should you use?
There are three things you need to take into account when breaking bad news to your team:
- Who is impacted by the news?
- How will the news impact them?
- Does everyone need to hear the news at the same time and in the same way?
When people work together, news (or at least it’s bratty little cousins, gossip and rumor) spreads quickly. You can see people visibly upset at their desks, or watch the traffic shuffling in and out of the boss’s office. You can gather people together quickly and tell them live, person-to-person. The problem is that by the time you get around to telling the people who are working elsewhere, the jungle telegraph has started beating and they will have heard from their colleagues via IM, email, or some kind of telepathy.
This can be a problem for two reasons. First, you’ve lost control of the message. You can no longer craft the news in a thoughtful way. You’re simply responding to what’s out there. Secondly, the remote team often feels like it’s a second-class citizen, always getting the news last.
Think about ways to include everyone in your announcement, in a way that will allow for the best understanding and appropriate reactions. Questions, venting, grieving and general bewilderment are natural. As the leader, you want to account for these normal, human responses to the news.
As to technology, here are some guidelines.
Texts lack richness and nuance. They should be used to get attention and drive people to where they can receive details of the announcement. “There’s an important announcement. Please join this call/meeting or check your email for more details” Because you can’t guess where people will be when they receive your news, it’s best not to catch them off-guard or in a place where they’ll be emotionally vulnerable. Prepare them for what’s to come, but don’t make the announcement itself this way.
While email has great scope. It’s often important that everyone get the same message at the same time. That said, people may have questions that need to be answered, or want to respond, and just because you sent the message as clearly as possible, it doesn’t mean it was received as intended. Your email should not only contain what the announcement is, but what this message means to the reader and concrete next steps. Will there be a live Q and A session? Are more details to come? Will there be a team-level discussion and when/who will it be held?
Recorded voice or video messages
Voice tone and facial expressions are important features of good, rich communication. Recorded messages can be effective when timezones or the realities of work make it impossible for everyone to attend a live call at the same time, yet you want people to hear the message from the leader or appropriate messenger. Video is richer than audio-only, and should be used whenever possible. Recording allows people who can’t attend a live event to still get the information in the same way as the rest of the team.
Live announcements and debriefs
Even if the announcement has been made, people will have questions, or want to hear it for themselves, or just want to gather (even virtually) with their colleagues. Live events can take time to coordinate, and the rumor mill can go into overdrive in the meantime. Think about using some of the other tools for short-term communication while planning all along to give people the best chance to really understand the change.
Keeping everyone on the team up on what’s happening—whether the news is good or bad—should be part of a leader’s plan. Think about consistency, timing and richness. Every member of the team has the right to feel just as important and part of the team as everyone else.
How are you going to make that happen?
Learning when and how to communicate with your remote team is just one thing you’ll learn with the Remote Leadership Toolkit. If you’re new to managing remote teams or thinking about branching out in that direction, this is a great, inexpensive way to learn the basics you’ll need to succeed.
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. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.