Delivering Bad News at Work: Is There a Good Way?

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Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2016)
Article: Displaying Fairness While Delivering Bad News: Testing the Effectiveness of Organizational Bad News Training in the Layoff Context
Authors: M. Richter, C.J. König, C. Koppermann, M. Schilling
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

Delivering bad news at work may be one of the hardest things to do. Even the most positive, motivational, supportive leader must sometimes deliver news that is soul-crushing. Whether it’s announcing layoffs or a less-than-stellar progress report, delivery of bad news may cause enormous anxiety for the deliverer, and devastation for the receiver. To ease the difficulty of these common situations, researchers (Richter, König, Koppermann, & Schilling, 2016) have developed something called “bad news training.” A combination of lessons from I-O Psychology as well as the health-care industry, how did this new training fair when put to the test?

BAD NEWS TRAINING

The researchers created a training program that is meant to target managers whom must deliver bad news, in order to help them deliver it with less anxiety and greater effectiveness. There were two parts to the training. One part, called the “bad news delivery component” was a protocol borrowed from the health care industry. Of course, this field is a bit ahead of the game, as delivery of bad news has always been a key part of a health-care provider’s job. A doctor, for example, is taught to arrange the setting, immediately deliver the bad news, provide a detailed explanation, deal with the emotions of the recipient, provide follow-up information, and finally, summarize the discussion. This formal protocol was adopted in this study as the “bad news component.”

The second part of the training created by the researchers is the “fairness component.” This is based on the importance of procedural fairness, or the extent to which employees perceive that organizational decisions and processes are fair. For example, the training taught that deliverers of bad news should provide ample explanation for the decision, and listen to the response of the receiver, so that he or she feels heard. In general, the researchers predicted that the fairness component would affect receivers of bad news, allowing them to more easily accept the bad news and respond with less negativity, whereas the bad news delivery component (mentioned above) would help deliverers of bad news better deal with the stress of the situation.

RESULTS OF THE STUDY

The researchers conducted a two part study that assessed the usefulness of the full training. Managers who received the full two-part training were compared to those who did not receive the training, or to those who only received part of the training. Did the training help managers and employees when news of layoffs had to be delivered? Of course, the researchers couldn’t use people who were actually getting laid off. It would be unethical, they point out, to withhold useful training from certain study participants just to demonstrate that this causes more anguish. Instead, the researchers tested their hypotheses using simulated layoff scenarios with well-trained actors and well-defined protocols.

Results show that the bad news delivery component helped the managers more effectively deliver the bad news, and the fairness component helped receivers of the bad news believe that the situation is fair, limiting negative responses. The training also helped deliverers of bad news feel better beforehand, compared to the typical anxiety they might feel.

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This study demonstrates the usefulness of bad news training for organizations. Organizational leaders must deliver bad news frequently, and oftentimes little thought or care is put into determining the most effective way to do this. Organizations that use bad news training benefit the people delivering the bad news as well as the people receiving the bad news. Additionally, when receivers of bad news respond with less negativity toward the organization, the threat of bad reputations or lawsuits is mitigated. Delivery of bad news will always be difficult, but smart organization who use bad news training may be setting themselves apart by making the most of a bad situation.

Richter, M., König, C. J., Koppermann, C., & Schilling, M. (2016). Displaying fairness while delivering bad news: Testing the effectiveness of organizational bad news training in the layoff context. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(6), 779-792. doi:10.1037/apl0000087

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