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The Safe Space #2 – giving bad news

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Welcome to the Safe Space – where managers can share their issues and gain advice from top learning & development consultants.

Here at =mc, we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this new blog we’ll share some of those challenges, and our advice for dealing with them.

This time the challenge has come from an anonymous Head of Events at a community based charity. The =mc consultants offer advice on a difficult scenario that you may well identify with: delivering bad news to colleagues.

What’s the issue?

Dear Safe Space, I’ve been working in my organisation for over a decade. I love my job and I’m really proud of the work that we do. We are a small, close-knit organisation where everyone works very hard and gets on brilliantly. We are a community action group, providing support through a range of projects in our local area. My role is to head up our events and as you can imagine 2020 has been a trying year so far. Sadly, it’s about to get worse. We’re in a local lockdown at the moment.  Restrictions are tightening up nationally again, and I can only suppose there will be a “second wave” of this pandemic. Therefore, the Board has decided that we are going to stay safe by homeworking until at least April 2021. For some people, this will be fine. But I know for one of my team members however, this will be devastating. They will hate it – they already grumble about being at home. I’m now set with the horrible task of getting in touch with them to tell them what has been decided. I hate giving bad news, and I’m really worried about it. I’m concerned about getting the message right, but even more worried about how they are going to feel. They will be so upset. I feel dreadful. What can I do?

Unhappy person at computer

What our consultants say:


Dear Head of Events, I’m so sorry to hear you are going through such a tough time. I’m afraid it’s all too common at the moment. 2020 continues to be a nightmare for many. This will offer you little comfort I know. Unfortunately, however, it seems like you have little choice in the matter, and you will need to follow it through. I’ve had to be the one to give bad news a fair few times in my previous roles in HR and my advice is to get to get into the mindset that this is a necessary and important conversation – not a difficult one. As line managers, we must put into practice strategic decisions. It will be easier for you if you take ownership of that, and think about why it makes sense to stay at home for your work, your team, and specifically this team member. Make your message about them and their safety so they see why this is necessary and not being ‘done to them’. Be direct and factual about the situation and why this is happening. Don’t procrastinate and put it off.  You can give your message with kindness, and getting this done as soon as you can is the fairest thing you can do for your colleagues.


Dear Head of Events, I feel your pain – it’s never nice to tell people what you think they won’t want to hear. As Yvette says, your team members need your kindness. In your dealings with them, display empathy. That’s not the same as sympathy – you can’t assume you know how they will feel and after all you are not in their position so you won’t be feeling the same way they are feeling. Empathy is all about understanding how others could be feeling and recognising how those feelings may manifest. Spend a bit of time planning for different reactions. There could be a whole range of ways in which your team member will respond.  Maybe they will surprise you and be understanding about the situation having come to their own conclusions, and they are only interested in asking questions about how work will be organised over the next few months. Maybe they will be really upset, surprised, and cry a lot. If so, give them time and wait. Explain you know this is difficult, ask if they want to suspend your conversations to another time. Maybe they will get really angry – and shout at you. I hope not! But if so, explain that whilst this is difficult, it’s not OK to shout – stop the meeting and come back to it another time. By planning in this way, you can keep yourself in check and hold your own emotions steady. Ultimately, this process is all about them and how they feel, so it’s important not to make it about you and or for you to take those feelings on.


Dear Head of Events, it’s a good thing that you are concerned, it shows your human side and that you care about your colleagues as well as the important work that you do. I know it’s hard – but try to see this as a learning opportunity. As your career progresses, you will from time to time have to deliver bad news and tell people things they do not want to hear. I’m not at all suggesting you develop a thick skin or become cold hearted. But it’s important you realise this is not of your creation – it isn’t your fault. The best thing you can do for your colleagues is to make sure they are treated right and in the fairest way given the circumstances. Try to find out why they are concerned about working at home – list the challenges they are facing, and see what you can do to make it better for them. The best thing you can do for yourself is build your resilience: see this as a challenge you need to overcome rather than seeing it as the end of the world. After you have had the conversation, take time out to assess how you are doing. Ask yourself what do you do well? How are you helping your colleague? When faced with this kind of situation again, would you do anything differently? Also, make sure you look after yourself during this process. Take time out, rest, and get support for your own wellbeing. This conversation will not be easy – but it also won’t last forever.

What’s next

If you’d like to explore ways of preparing for situations like this, take a look at the Handling Difficult Conversations training programme.

You can also contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to discuss similar challenges and how we might be able to help.

Finally, if you’re facing a challenge you’d like some advice on in the next issue of the Safe Space, email us on While we can’t promise to publish all the requests we receive, we will offer advice by email as a minimum.

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