Delivering Bad News

Senior leaders, team members, and customers need to hear the ground truth from someone that they trust. However, delivering bad news can be extremely stressful. Many messengers have been shot, and some have never recovered from their wounds. Many executives who are poor leaders have inflected wounds on their IT managers when they attempted to deliver unfavorable information—information that the executives in fact needed in order to make the right decisions.

Where can the IT professional turn to learn how to deliver bad news? How about the medical profession? Every day physicians have to deliver bad news to patients. No one wants to hear that they have an incurable disease or that they are terminally ill. Yet, facing the stress of delivering this distressing information is one of the physician’s occupational obligations.

Physicians use a process with the acronym “SPIKES” to deliver bad news to patients respectfully and compassionately (Baile et al., 2000). Bad news concerning IT projects is rarely a life-and-death matter, so if SPIKES works for physicians, it can work for IT leaders. The SPIKES process is depicted in Figure 6-10.

Let’s explore some key activities in this process.

  • 1. SET UP the Interview:
    • • Mentally rehearse the conversation.
    • • Expect to have negative feelings and to feel frustrated or responsible.
    • • Arrange for privacy.
  • • If possible, ensure that everyone is seated and in a relaxed position.
  • • Establish rapport by making eye contact.
  • • Choose a time when you will not be interrupted.
  • 2. Assess the Stakeholder’s PERCEPTION:
    • • “Before you tell, ask.” Ask relevant questions to understand the stakeholder’s perception of the situation.
    • • Correct misinformation and misunderstandings.
    • • Address unrealistic expectations.
  • 3. Obtain the Stakeholder’s INVITATION:
    • • Determine how much detail the stakeholder needs about the situation.
    • • If possible and relevant, let the stakeholder know that more details are available in the future.
  • 4. Give the Stakeholder KNOWLEDGE and INFORMATION:
    • • Warn the stakeholder that you are about to deliver bad news: “Unfortunately, I have some bad news for you,” or “I’m sorry to tell you that ...”.
    • • Speak in terms of the stakeholder’s vocabulary, in a way that you know he or she will understand. Avoid using unfamiliar jargon.
    • • Do not be excessively blunt.
    • • Give the information in small chunks.
  • 5. Address the Stakeholder’s EMOTIONS with Empathetic Responses:
    • • Understand that this is a very difficult part of the conversation.
    • • Observe and identify the stakeholder’s emotion, naming it to yourself.
    • • Try to understand the reason for the emotion.
    • • Give the stakeholder time to express his or her feelings.
    • • Connect with the stakeholder’s feelings: “I wish we did not have to face this situation.”
    • • Continue the dialogue until the emotions clear.
    • • Check the stakeholder’s understanding of the situation.
    • • Explore options to address the issue going forward.
SPIKES process for delivering bad news. [Data derived from Baile et al. (2000). "SPIKES—A Six-Step Protocol for Delivering Bad News

Figure 6-10 SPIKES process for delivering bad news. [Data derived from Baile et al. (2000). "SPIKES—A Six-Step Protocol for Delivering Bad News: Application to the Patient with Cancer." The Oncologist, 5(4): 302-311.]

The SPIKES process helps you mindfully deliver bad news in a compassionate manner, providing the stakeholder with information he or she needs but does not want to hear while allowing you to keep your credibility intact. I have used this process during personnel layoffs, both for informing team members of the decision to lay them off and for explaining the situation to the remaining workforce. I made every effort to deliver the bad news mindfully and compassionately; however, not one of these conversations was easy or stress- free.

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