For business leaders, delivering bad news in a good way is a skill that takes work

Melissa DeLay helps CEOs find good ways to break bad news. It may come as no surprise that their business has grown exponentially due to the pandemic.

DeLay, through 22 years of crisis and strategic communications consulting with her Roseville-based firm, TruPerception, has honed a framework to guide organizations through difficult situations.

“There’s science behind communication,” said DeLay. “There is a certain way of writing words. There are words to avoid, there are words to use. There is a right time to deliver a message. There are some times that you have to repeat to really get it. There are the right vehicles.”

However, too many CEOs don’t realize that things like closed-door meetings and bad body language speak volumes, even if they don’t make announcements or email about an issue.

“The world is basically full of bad news,” DeLay said. “Unfortunately, very few people know how to speak and write transparently, get results, help them get out of a position of power and not be taken advantage of, or come across as overbearing, pushy or aggressive, things no leader really wants to be seen will.”

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Change is difficult, and communication is key to change, DeLay said. That’s why she offers free “cheat sheets” on how to fire an employee and avoid a failed merger.

These may prove useful based on what DeLay sees where leaders need help most right now. In a camp are companies that are growing, making acquisitions and searching for talent, but are struggling to keep up with the constant rapid expansion. On the other hand, those who are beginning to downsize are beginning to cut costs and fear where the economy is headed.

Informal communication is more powerful than formal announcements, DeLay said. Some executives got better at it during the pandemic and lowered their vigilance a bit to get to know employees, although some of that “organic and natural” communication is disappearing.

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“I tell executives all the time that if you want productivity to increase, you need to make it clear in your communications that you care about the people who work for you,” DeLay said.

DeLay recommends speaking objectively about the business and focusing on what makes sense for the business, customers, and employees in the event of a disruption. She said employees respond better to everyday language.

Before announcing a disruption, leaders need to prepare frontline managers to answer questions because employees will approach them first.

Leaders should be more informal and transparent, DeLay said. But they shouldn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. In a recent email to clients, DeLay wrote about a CEO who posted a tearful photo of himself after firing two employees.

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“I would have told that CEO what matters most in this situation is the employee — not the manager,” DeLay said. “Talk to your executive coach, your mom, your dog or your best friend or anyone else to give you the help you need to get through this.”

When emotions arise, the fight-or-flight response kicks in and we don’t think clearly.

“Be transparent, be authentic, but don’t throw emotion into the equation right now,” DeLay said. “Just hit the pause button so you can communicate and get your brain working and getting the best possible outcome. You want to show empathy, but don’t let your emotions control you. It’s a leader’s job to neutralize emotions. “

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer based in Lake Elmo. His email address is [email protected]

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