A common scenario that often prompts even the most seasoned leaders to cringe is informing an employee that they have been passed over for a promotion. You may fear that the bonds of trust between you will shatter and that your valued employee may become disheartened and seek out a new position elsewhere. Your actions in this situation can be reasonably straightforward, as long as you understand the basic, universal needs of people: We all want to be valued, listened to, appreciated, respected, involved, and connected.
When you have crushing news to deliver, you can soften the blow by understanding the impact of your words and actions. If you have the integrity and foresight to recognize that everything you do and say affects these universal needs, you will be better able to consciously direct your energy and intentions to facilitate the emotions of your potentially disgruntled employee.
The next time you have to deliver bad news to an employee, consider these points to let them down gently, while maintaining trust and ultimately setting a new course of action. Here I use the example of letting an employee know they were turned down for a promotion, but these steps can be taken whenever you are involved in any challenging discussion.
1. Plan ahead.
Mindfully plan for the conversation. It may help to make notes and consider what you will say ahead of time. Use this time to visualize what it feels like to be in your employee's position. Consider how they may react. Will they be angry, sad--or a combination of emotions? Be prepared to answer some tough questions and set aside enough time to spend with the person in case they wish to take the discussion further. Your job is to be a source of reliable information and a calming presence.
2. Do not delay.
Avoiding an uncomfortable conversation may provide temporary stress relief, but it only makes a difficult situation worse. Make it a priority to sit down with your employee and discuss the issue face-to-face. It can also be helpful to plan for the location of your meeting, in advance. Environmental factors such as light, color, room temperature, sound, and movement are often overlooked when planning for a discussion of a delicate nature.
3. Uphold the person's self-esteem.
Your employee may feel disappointed, which means confidence levels can plummet. Acknowledge their positive qualities and contributions. A warm, respectful tone will set the mood for a productive discussion, ideally providing a sense of comfort and collaboration.
4. Don't sugar-coat the truth.
While maintaining the person's self-regard is essential, be honest when discussing why this person did not get the position--while remaining diplomatic. Instinctively, you may want to make them feel better with half-truths but this may only end up hurting you both. Stick to the facts and clearly articulate the details of the job selection process.
5. Stay focused and present.
This goes without saying in any conversation, but in this instance, extra care should be taken to hear the person out. Listen actively and mindfully and refrain from interrupting. Validate your colleague's feelings, such as, "I can understand why you are disappointed...." Empathize and allow them to vent their feelings and frustrations.
6. Add value and offer help.
Review professional development options together. What actions can be taken to further the employee's career goals? Are there behaviors or particular patterns that are holding them back? Perhaps a mentor or coach could help them to break through these issues. Provide your authentic feedback and discuss some short-term incentives and long-term plans.
7. Invite participation and follow-up.
Encourage accountability by asking your colleague to get back to you with their progress. It is good practice to touch base with them soon after your initial conversation to see how they are doing. You can't expect someone to get over disappointment overnight. However, checking in on them sends the message that they are a valued member of your team.