Should managers be trained to deliver bad news?

by L&D08 Jun 2016
Delivering bad news poorly can result in employees reacting aggressively or, in extreme circumstances, even suing the company.

Now, new research has found that it's not so much the message, but the way that you say it that counts when you're telling somebody something they don't want to hear.

For instance, if a manager adopts an aggressive tone, the employee is much more likely to react in a confrontational manner than if the manager takes time to explain the situation and the underlying causes. 

The team of psychologists at Saarland University in Germany led by Professor Cornelius König conducted experiments designed to establish the best way for managers to communicate bad news to employees.

In the first study, the researchers split participants into two groups. One group received training in how to communicate the factually correct arguments for a layoff, and how to treat employees fairly.

The second group conducted layoff interviews without having undergone this training.

The results showed employees were more likely to accept the manner in which the dismissal was conducted and the decision itself if the messenger had received prior training.

This is compared to the other group in which notification of termination was only communicated to employees in a formally correct way.

They then conducted a second study which sought to discover whether the perception of "formal correctness" or that of "fairness" was more important in the recipients' reaction to the layoff interview. 

This second study had two training groups, as well as the control group.

One of the training groups received training in both formal correctness and fairness, while the members of the other training group were just trained in formal correctness. 

The researchers found that it is actually fairness that is critical to how the layoff interview is judged.

Specifically, they found that employees whose supervisor had received training only with respect to the formal procedural aspects of the layoff interview were just as unhappy as those whose managers had received no training at all.

Managers who had received fairness training explained to employees losing their jobs that the layoff was not a reflection of their performance but the result of the economic difficulties that the company was in, forcing it to lay off some of its staff.

“Fairness includes elements such as process transparency and treating an employee with respect,” said Professor König.

“Research of this kind can make it easier for all involved to cope with the ordeal of giving and receiving bad news."

Of course, as HC Online recently reported, it's important to ensure procedural fairness when issuing warnings in relation to poor behaviour or performance. 

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The importance of fairness to employee motivation