Prof. Michael Roberto

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, organizations will face many unexpected and unpredictable events. Problems will arise that will very hard to anticipate. The best firms will identify these problems and hidden risks early before issues escalate into major crises. Employees at the front lines, or in middle management, often will notice these problems long before senior executives recognize them. However, they may feel reluctant about sharing the bad news. People fear that leaders will “shoot the messenger” or simply dismiss their concerns. They do not want to be punished or marginalized for uncovering problems. Naturally, leaders can take action to make people feel safe speaking up. However, employees also can employ certain strategies to speak up more effectively, so that leaders do not discount their concerns. Here are seven key strategies to deliver bad news successfully. 

1) KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

Put yourself in the shoes of the person you are trying to persuade. Try to understand how they process information. Are they data-driven or more intuitive? Do they prefer formal or informal communication?  

2) UNDERSTAND THE HISTORY

Research the history of the issue so that you understand who might feel most threatened when you speak up. Anticipate how they might respond to your concerns. Try to avoid placing blame on those who may have been involved in the problematic initiative or project. Focus on fixing the problem rather than trying to determine who was responsible for past mistakes.

3) SEEK ALLIES AND BUILD COALITIONS

Don’t go it alone. Strength resides in numbers. Find others who support your point of view and who are willing to stand with you.   Work with people who have influence without authority.  In other words, align with people who have the expertise or previous experience that gives them credibility with senior leaders, even if they don’t hold top positions within the organization.

4) TELL STORIES

You will convince and persuade much more successfully if you craft a compelling story, rather than just present a series of bullet points. Data will still play a critical role in your argument, but you will be more persuasive if you embed that data in a narrative. Research clearly shows that compelling stories are much more memorable and persuasive than lists of issues. 

5) WORK THROUGH KEY CONFIDANTES AND GATEKEEPERS

Often, senior leaders have certain people who serve as key sounding boards or advisors on important issues. You may be far more persuasive if you can work through these people, rather than trying to go around them to air your concerns. Leaders may be more responsive if these trusted confidants and gatekeepers carry your message forward. 

6) FOCUS FIRST ON DIVERGENT THINKING

Don’t start the conversation by attempting to persuade people to adopt your point of view. Instead, begin by asking good questions, and trying to get others to think differently about the situation at hand. Encourage them to adopt a different vantage point and to question key assumptions. Ask, don’t tell, and you are more likely to stimulate a productive conversation.

7) PRESENT ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS

Do not just argue that a serious problem exists. Try to outline a few alternative solutions. You don’t have to have it all figured out. However, if you have at least thought about how to solve the problem, you may find that leaders are more attentive to your concerns. 

In sum, speaking up requires skill as well as courage. The ability to persuade rests on more than a charismatic or extroverted personality. Front line employees and middle managers must employ techniques that enable them to influence others despite their lack of authority. These strategies range from finding the right allies, to crafting your argument in the form of a compelling story, to asking stimulating questions that draw others into a thoughtful and constructive conversation. If you share bad news effectively, you can surface problems and hidden risks before they escalate into large-scale failures during these unpredictable and turbulent times. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael A. Roberto is Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University, and the author of Unlocking Creativity, published by Wiley in 2019.