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Great Leaders Embrace the 'Cringe Moments'

Have to give an employee bad news? Here's why you should welcome the awkwardness--and how to overcome it.
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How do you break bad news to an employee? Many leaders put off the uncomfortable conversation and hope the problem will go away. Others prolong difficult discussions by explaining their thinking before announcing the decision--resulting in a confusing preamble that wastes everyone's time.

Giving bad news often makes leaders procrastinate--leading to what Peter Bregman, a consultant who specializes in helping CEOs with tough leadership issues, calls the "cringe moment."

"Do you know that uneasy moment--right as you're saying something that feels risky, but before the person responds? That's the cringe moment," Bregman writes in the Harvard Business Review.

Bregman writes about a time when he had to tell an employee she wasn't going to spearhead a project. But he avoided the "cringe moment" for so long that it became a bigger, more uncomfortable issue.

"I delayed speaking with Shari because I was afraid of how I would feel giving her the negative feedback: awkward, uncomfortable, and maybe even unreasonable," Bregman writes. But by delaying, he says he actually increased the "cringe quotient" of the dreaded conversation.

There it is: You are afraid of how you'll feel during that short, fleeting moment. It's a selfish sentiment you have to get over. Pull the trigger and it'll be done. But instead of getting it over with, you fight it, and you try to build a case for your decision by giving context before you make the announcement.

Leaders do this to convince employees that their decision is rational. "But since the listeners don't know what decision is being made, they have no context for the context and it all feels meaningless,"Bregman writes. And delaying the announcement of your tough decisions only makes the cringe-worthy conversations more uncomfortable for you and your employees.

Below, check out how you can get over your fear of the cringe.

Get out of the gate swinging.

There is no easy way to give bad news, but there is a right and a wrong way. The right way is to be direct and honest. The wrong way is to lie, avoid, be indirect, meander and procrastinate.

"The solution is simple and straightforward: Lead with the punchline," Bregman writes. "What should I have said to Shari? 'Thanks for coming in, Shari. I am not going to have you run the leadership program with Ganta, and I'd like you to understand why….'"

He explains: "Next time you have a conversation you're dreading, lead with the part you're dreading. Get to the conclusion in the first sentence. Cringe fast and cringe early. It's a simple move that few of us make consistently because it requires emotional courage."

What happens after.

Bregman says after a direct opening like the above, the bad part is (likely) over. (For how to manage unprofessional and emotional reactions, click here.) If you're clear and direct, your employees will be intently listening to what you're saying. They may also surprise you by agreeing with your decision.

The realization.

Once you realize that your fear of feeling awkward for a few seconds is what's holding you back from relaying important feedback, news, or decisions, you'll be able to conquer it.

"I almost always overestimate how difficult it is for the other person to hear what I have to say," Bregman says. "People are resilient. I'm usually more uncomfortable delivering a difficult message than the other person is receiving it."

Remember: Be direct but not callous.

Callous indifference is totally different than being direct. "In fact, it's the opposite; done with care, being direct is far more considerate," according to Bregman. Being direct will reduce both parties' angst and save you all time.

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Jul 8, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported on the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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