Breaking Bad News
A colleague and I were given the unpleasant job of firing a long-tenured advertising agency. The decision had nothing to do with performance; the agency was just the victim of a consolidation of vendors on our part. Our meeting with one of its partners was set for Monday morning. Coincidentally, the firm’s other partner invited my colleague (let’s call him John) and me to a dinner at his house over the intervening weekend. Saturday night came, and John and his wife were a late scratch.
My wife and I had a wonderful dinner at the agency principal’s house that Saturday (he and his wife happened to be among our best friends.) Monday came, and my friend’s partner joined John and me in John’s office. John looked at me and didn’t say a word. The task of giving the bad news fell entirely on me! I stumbled through, and the agency principal was more gracious than I expected or deserved. That night, my agency friend and I drank a couple scotches together. I reiterated what I said to his partner that this did not reflect their good work. He reiterated that this would not impact our friendship.
And John? He went on to lead marketing organizations and business units. By all accounts he has had a successful career. But I noticed he was vocal in earnings calls when there was good news to report, silent when news wasn’t so good. I wonder if this inability to deliver bad news got in the way of John even going farther in his career.
The SPIKES Protocol
Leaders have to learn how to give bad news. Being absent is not an option. Yet, I don’t remember being taught this particular skill at Wharton. My education on the subject was primarily through trial and error. And the errors can be painful for all parties.
There are professionals who leave school well versed in delivering bad news. Maybe that’s because bad news from an oncologist is often more devastating than bad news from a marketing Vice President. Baile, Buckman, et. al. (2000) provided the definitive "how to" in The Oncologist journal. The particular process they provided the medical profession is called the SPIKES protocol. Here are the elements:
S: SETTING UP the Interview. Find the right time. Arrange for privacy. Include significant others of the patient. Sit down. Make connections. Manage time and interruptions.
P: Assessing the Patient’s PERCEPTION. Ask before telling, such as, “What do you understand about why we conducted these tests?”
I: Obtaining the Patient’s INVITATION. Ask whether the patient wants all the details, or just the bottom line.
K: Giving KNOWLEDGE and Information to the Patient. Start by saying you have bad news to share. Use non-technical language. Temper how blunt you are.
E: Addressing the Patient’s EMOTIONS with Empathetic Responses. Check for the patient’s emotional response. Identify the emotion. Consider the reason for the emotion. Give the patient time to express their feelings. Connect with them by saying something that shows you understand what they are feeling.
S: STRATEGY and SUMMARY. Ask if the patient is ready to discuss a treatment plan. Share options with them. Share responsibility for treatment plan with the patient. Work to ensure patient understands the efficacy or purpose of treatment options.
I think the SPIKES protocol should be applied by business leaders in thinking through how to deliver their own bad news. Let’s consider two different audiences that might receive news: (1) subordinates, either direct or indirect reports and (2) bosses, including boards of directors, analysts or shareholders.
Sharing Bad News with your Employees
Perhaps you can hide behind your HR resources, and have them give news of terminations at an individual or group level to your team. Maybe you’ll just let news leak out that a decision has been taken by the Exec Team that is contrary to the position you took to support your people. Maybe employees can read in Fast Companyabout the fine paid out by your company that will mean no bonuses this year. And maybe you will lose the respect of your team by not being authentic with them.
The SPIKES protocol for delivering bad news to your employees is very similar to what doctors have to do:
S: Set up a meeting with urgency. People have the right to know as soon as possible. You may have a small cabinet of direct reports who get an early “heads up.” And they may have useful comments on your communication to a larger group. But it’s important to get your message out as soon as you can, or in coordination with communication by colleagues.
P: You can ask if people are aware of an issue. It invites them to speak up, which might be useful later on. And this can remind them of previous communication you’ve had with them.
I: Generally, obtaining an invitation to provide information is skipped. While you should be respectful of people’s desire for information, there is a message that must be received whether or not you are invited to provide it.
K: Explain how a decision was made. If you took a position contrary to a final decision, explain what won the day. People will know what your position was. They will now find you supporting a decision that was different than you had espoused. There has to be a reason why. Provide the justification.
Speak up to your audience. Doctors might dumb down their message to avoid medical speak. Talk to your audience in a way that matches its expertise. Prepare your comments. Be direct with your message. Ensure that people realize the decision taken is final.
E: Be frank about your own reaction, but avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” You still have a job; the people you are talking to might lose theirs. Practice your presentation well enough to avoid a written script. Ensure that your body language matches your verbal message.
Allow time for people to vent, but not to appeal the decision. Listen to what they have to say. It might feel like this is directed at you. Most of the time this is just how people process bad news and begin to think about how it will affect them.
S: Provide a glimpse into the future. Will the staff be asked to put in significant overtime for the next month? Will HR be contacting individuals to tell them about their future with the organization? Will the proposed acquisition mean that people need to turn over all documents to lawyers?
You may think that people will be numb after your announcement and may not absorb next steps easily. Give them more credit than that. How does this office calamity stack up to the patient who finds herself discussing treatment options with her oncologist immediately after receiving a diagnosis? Nobody wants to be left hanging after receiving bad news. Provide the remedy, or at least the options that might be taken to get to a better position. Get people to start focusing on the future.
Summarize, document, follow up and follow through. End your meeting with a concluding statement of the problem and the immediate next steps. Send a note that memorializes the discussion. You can acknowledge the emotions that were shared in the discussion and include the steps that will follow. And commit yourself to the process, to make sure that commitments you make or are made by others happen as intended.
Sharing Bad News with Bosses
Things don’t always go as planned in business. And sharing negative variances with the CEO, board members or shareholders is part of the job. In fact, it may be more career defining than offering good news. A variation of the SPIKES protocol works well to organize the discussion.
S: Set up the interview: Go to the boss’s office. Say, “I need fifteen minutes of your time. Is this a good time to talk?” Don’t pick a time when they have one foot out the door or are stressed from another significant issue. Don’t wait so long to bring up the issue that your delay becomes an issue of its own.
P, I & K: Assessing the boss’s existing perception, giving knowledge and obtaining an invitation are all mashed together. First, you need to command attention. Tell the boss, “I have some bad news on the Jones account.” No sugarcoating. Pause long enough to ensure comprehension. Follow up with a question to gauge perception or to remind them of previous warnings of potentially negative events: “Are you familiar with the negotiations we’ve been having with them?” The response may confirm familiarity (“Yes, I remember the issues you were having.”) Or if the boss admits to a lack of familiarity, you have set up an opportunity for them to invite you in (“I don’t think I am up to speed on that. What has been going on?”)
Follow up with information, at the level of detail that best addresses your audience. Some people want hard data. Others need to understand the process and timeline. Some just require the big picture or want to understand your perceptions of the client’s state of mind. You may not have to get to the root of the problem; addressing the symptoms may be all that is required. Be prepared to get to the heart of the issue, but as often as not, the boss will just want to address the immediate problem. The root cause can be addressed another day.
E: It is uncommon to get such an emotional response from the boss that you feel compelled to press the PAUSE button. But it can happen. So, read your audience, in case they are flipping out. And if you are facing a very emotional response, you can suggest that the solutions you’d like to share can be held for another time, after everybody has a chance to reflect.
There is another part of the empathy and emotional assessment to consider when talking to your boss. Think about your own emotions. Don’t make light of the situation. If it is not to be taken seriously, why would you bring it up to your boss? Don’t panic, either. Your boss will wonder how things got so bad without you saying anything before. Just the facts, ma’am!
S: In this case, when the boss is open to the discussion, suggest multiple solutions. It is fine to have a recommendation. If the bad news is ongoing, can affect achieving budget, hitting launch dates, etc., the boss might want more degrees of freedom than just agreeing to the action you plan on taking. Provide your assessment of probability of success and cost of each solution. Reach a decision with your boss and document that solution. Is there something that the boss has to do? Steps you or your team need to take? Summarize them and send a follow-up memo. In closing, if the situation is your fault, own up to it, apologize briefly and state the actions to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
If solutions are being shared with parties not in an executive role, providing options may not be appropriate. You don’t want your board of directors to decide on a tactical course of action. Simply share the chosen course of action, keeping other options in your back pocket, along with the rationale of why they are not the preferred solutions.
A Closing Thought
Neither my colleague, John, nor I ever went to medical school. But we both should have learned the very important skill of delivering bad news. Adopting the SPIKES protocol to the business world ensures that difficult messages are received in a timely manner, that information is concisely communicated, that emotional reactions are recognized and acknowledged and that steps are taken to put things back on the right track.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.