Are you going to listen to me? The delicate art of communication! Giving bad news!

This week my posts are going to be about Communication and I start here with how to give the bad news – in this case seriously bad news, for example, about redundancy.

About a year ago I published a version of the post below!  It has been one of the most popular items on this site!

I started my working life as a nurse.  In those days we were given no preparation for giving bad news.  I can still remember feeling totally undone by the prospect of having to tell a young husband that his wife had died!  I was the only person there to give the message.  I did my best but to this day, I know that I could have done it better! I still remember every moment of the encounter with that poor man! So here is the advice which is now usually given to medical students in the UK and I believe nurses in training receive similar advice! It can be equally useful in the workplace.  Don’t under estimate the sense of loss and pain that accompanies news of redundancy!

This post is going to be concerned with, what John Nettles’ character described in a recent edition of Midsomer Murders as, ‘the delicate art of delivering bad news’

I covered giving feedback in a recent post and this is closely related, so you may wish to read that as well.

On most occasions when you give feedback your hearer is expecting a message of some kind – good or bad.  Bad news often comes as a shock, even if it is expected!  The reality and the details may be very hard to bear!  There is, and should be, a lot more to it than just saying or writing the words!

If you want to ensure there is the best possible outcome then you will need to prepare and to follow-up, as well as delivering the message itself well!


Preparing to give bad news is almost as important as actually giving it. For instance, where are you going to have the meeting?  Where you sit or stand in relation to the hearer and even what you wear is important, if the news is seriously bad.  If you have to write, then you need to think about the medium – this is not the time for a very brief email! You will need to think about how you are going to follow up and provide an opportunity to handle questions

When choosing a place, you should make sure it’s quiet with little or no chance of interruption. Make sure it’s some place you can make the person feel as comfortable as possible.  If possible, sit close to the person at eye-level with no barrier between you.  Studies have shown that many people feel isolated and alone if you sit behind a desk or some other barrier. They may also perceive you as cold and uncaring if you sit too far away.

Knowing how you should comfort really must come from what you know about the person!  For instance, if you’ve found they don’t like people sitting too close this may make them feel uncomfortable rather than at ease.

One thing that is important is for you to be very clear about the facts, the explanation behind a decision, for example, before you begin.  You also need to know the options open to the person.  In case of redundancy, what support can the person expect from HR?  In this example, identify an HR contact so that you can pass a name and telephone number onto the individual?

The worst thing you can do when giving bad news, is to give the individual the impression that you didn’t even care enough to find out the facts.  Know your material and don’t work from notes, if you can, on this occasion!  Notes can provide a barrier and you will not be able to judge their reactions so well!

Work out what your own feelings are about the situation before the meeting, and how to deal with them!  You want the person to know you are sorry but it isn’t fair to overwhelm them with your own grief!

Giving the news

Watching the person’s reaction and listening are very important while actually while giving bad news. Just from body language or the extent of eye contact, you can tell if they understand and accept what you’re saying and what emotions they are experiencing.   Be prepared for anger or despair with serious news.

It is really important to remember to speak clearly and slowly.  Don’t jump straight into the news – go through the usual courtesies at the beginning of the meeting.  In a letter warn them that you have bad news and say that you are sorry about it!

Throughout the meeting, ask them if they have any questions and if they understand what you’re telling them.    Don’t let your feelings weigh on the listener!


After you’ve given the bad news, don’t end the meeting abruptly. Ask again for questions or if they need any information repeated. Offer additional sources of information like pamphlets or the names of support groups if they are available. Make sure to pass on that name and contact details for HR.

Most of us feel somewhat lost after receiving very bad news.  One way to deal with this is to schedule another meeting shortly afterwards or to ring them to discuss how they are going to manage the time ahead.

At the very least you will want to make sure they understood what you told them and that they can respond to it as necessary. Then you may want to allow them some time alone! Just don’t rush them out of your office or wherever the meeting is taking place.  Take time to be kind – compassion costs us nothing!”

I would very much welcome your own tips on handling bad news and to hear your own experiences

I hope to publish the next post in this series on Communication on Wednesday 2nd March 2011

Think twice before you speak or the secrets of stakeholder management

Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.Napoleon Hill

A recent post talked about the pitfalls of office politics (King, Queen or Pawn – the Joys of Office Politics)!

This post deals with some of the same risks but not just those from within the organisation!

In management and particularly in the management of change (including projects and programmes) you will hear a lot about stakeholders.  We talk about how key they are to success and how we must ‘manage’ them!  But what exactly does that mean?

First, views on who your stakeholders actually are can vary widely.  The established wisdom is that a stakeholder is anyone who has an interest in what you are doing and can influence or have an impact on its success.  That last point is very important.  Lots of people may be interested to know more about what you are doing.  But unless they can influence the outcome, they should not be your main targets.  Sometimes telling the difference can be a challenge, particularly if you are new to the organisation!

Stakeholder management means building and maintaining active support for your initiative among those who can make a real difference to your outcome! They may be inside and outside the organisation!  For example, trade unions, pressure groups and regulatory bodies may be key players!  For private sector organisations, key stakeholder will include shareholders, main customers and, critically, main suppliers! For public sector organisations they will include the politicians!

You will need to identify and assess both the level of interest and influence!  What are people really worried about and what risk does that present to what you are trying to achieve?  How are you going to meet their needs?  This can range from from one-to-one meetings with you, or your sponsor, for the important players.  For those who have a general interest but little influence, perhaps access to your news web-pages or monthly newsletter will be sufficient!

You need both a stakeholder map (showing interest and influence) and a stakeholder plan showing targeted communications and when they will be issued. Then you need to implement your plan and monitor whether it is working.

At intervals you need to review both your map and your plan to ensure they are continuing to deliver the support you need.  As you go through your change process, the needs and interests of your stakeholders will change! New stakeholders will emerge and some will disappear – no I don’t mean you should start hiring a hit-man for the particularly irritating ones – although it can be tempting when you are under pressure!

When you analyse the people and groups around you, you will find the whole range of interests.  There will be potential advocates and you need to make sure they have the information they need to fully support you!  There will be opponents with whom, if you can, you should try to find the common ground.  Many will be indifferent and you may need to stir their interest –  but make sure you don’t create a risk by threatening their interests directly!  Key to all of this is getting to know the people around you.  Some people will just try to block what you do – usually this is through fear of a loss as a result of what you are doing.  Their fears may be realistic.  They need to understand why what you are doing is necessary and how you will limit damage, as far as you are able. There will be those who just go with the flow – if you can, energise them with good information and turn them into supporters!

There are lots of techniques you can use to complete the tasks set out above and OGC (now part of the Cabinet Office) produces a simple guide that sets some of them out.  You can find it at this link.

If your organisation has experts in communication within it, and you have access, then ask for help!

Start early and let people know where and how to access information.  But one warning, if you have promised any particular communication, for example, a monthly newsletter, then make sure it is actually produced on time and has good quality of information in it! Nothing is more frustrating than something that doesn’t arrive or looks good but doesn’t actually tell you anything about an initiative that impacts directly on you!

Communicate clearly and simply and be honest! If something is not turning out as planned don’t alienate your supporters by letting them hear about it from anyone else but you or your sponsor!

If you are just setting out on a change and have not done this before, I hope this helps.

If you have any questions or if you have experience and tips to offer, I would love to hear from you.

Do you wear a mask at work? Can you be yourself at work or even at home?

I’ve always had a dilemma!  I have spent much of my life trying to reconcile the needs of my interesting and satisfying professional life as a manager and consultant, with my spiritual and creative life as a seeker and a poet! For many years, I would rarely let my work colleagues know anything about my other interests!  Even now I exercise a degree of caution in who I tell and how! But life running my own business does mean that I have greater freedom to make my own choices! I was lucky, as I say above I enjoyed my life as a manager and I now enjoy the work I do as a consultant.  I could express myself in both my worlds!

But there are many who are far less lucky than me! Some of us cannot be ourselves at home, let alone at work!  And there is a penalty to pay from the time we spend adapting to meet the needs of others; time we spend pretending to be someone we are not! We can damage our health far more than we probably realise!

Dr Katherine Benziger is a pioneer and leading expert in her field. She has given three decades of teaching and research in psychology working to help people understand, value and use their own and other people’s natural gifts! Her work has focused on the proper and ethical development and application of personality assessment in the global business environment. Significantly, Dr Benziger prefers the term personality assessing, rather than personality testing, to describe her approach. She is keen to distance herself from the ‘personality testing’ industry, which puts the needs of the organisation ahead of the individuals who make it up!

Dr Benziger believes, in simple terms, that there are four different areas of one part of the human brain (the processing section or neocortex) that equate to four different types of human behaviour.

SENSING/BASAL LEFT The fundamental goal of the Basal Left/Sensation Type is to have the fullest possible experience of what is immediate and real, in order to be able to produce dependably. For this reason, the Basal Left is said to contribute or be responsible for the productive foundations in life.

FEELING/BASAL RIGHT The fundamental goal of the Basal Right/Feeling Type is to create harmony, connectedness and good will in the community. For this reason, the Basal Right is said to contribute or be responsible for the peaceful foundations in life.

INTUITION/FRONTAL RIGHT The fundamental goal of the Frontal Right/Intuitive Type is to discover the furthest reaches of the possible, in order to perceive new patterns, invent new solutions, or solve “theoretically insurmountable” problems. For this reason, the Frontal Right is said to contribute or be responsible for the adaptive in life.

THINKING/FRONTAL LEFT The fundamental goal of the Frontal Left/Thinking Type is to create rational order and make sound plans and decisions based on logical analysis. For this reason, the Frontal Left is said to contribute or be responsible for the Directing or Prioritizing function in life.

She believes that each of us is born with a hard-wired connectivity in one of the four areas which usually leads to how we interpret the world around us and how we react to it.  It results in personality styles, thinking styles, behaviour styles or communication styles.

Dr Benziger’s work has focussed on the common tendency of people in work, whether being assessed or not, to adapt their natural thinking and working styles to fit expectations of others.   This can apply both at home and at work! It can be a particular issue for women as many of us strive to be good partners, as well as successful mothers and supportive carers for our elder relatives! The result is tension and stress.  People become increasingly unhappy and ineffective, if they behave in unnatural ways! Much of Dr Benziger’s work focuses on dealing with these issues and the costs of this pressure to adapt.

Dr Arlene Taylor has been a leading specialist in ‘wellness’ since 1980, and has collaborated with Dr Benziger for much of that time.  Arlene Taylor’s work has confirmed, and builds on, Benziger’s observations about the cost of adapting!  Her work has included identifying anecdotally a collection of symptoms. The complete family of symptoms which Dr Arlene Taylor identified within PASS (Prolonged Adaption Stress Syndrome), as linked to Benziger’s work the “Falsification of Type”, are:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Hyper-vigilance
  3. Immune system alterations
  4. Memory impairment
  5. Altered brain chemistry
  6. Diminished frontal lobe functions
  7. Discouragement and or depression
  8. Self-esteem problems

So what does this mean for us as leaders and managers of groups of people at work? Remember that any personality assessment or psychometrics test can be skewed!  This is particularly likely if someone is practised at falsifying their type and spends their time continually trying to be someone they are not. Don’t rely solely on the results of such tests when you are recruiting. Get to know the people who work with you, and for you.  Make sure they know that you value difference in your team!  Don’t put pressure on them to confirm to a stereotype – value the differences between them!

We need to recognise that we are cannot all be good at everything and it is legitimate for us to do less well at some things and better at others! It is also OK for us not all to like or want the same things!   Don’t increase the pressure with unrealistic expectations of yourself and others. Be aware of the people around you and learn to recognise when they are showing the signs of stress!  It could be that they are trying too hard to live up to your expectations and that is causing the problem!  Make sure your expectations of yourself and others are legitimate and that they are reasonable!

You can find our more about Dr Benziger and her work at this link.

Bewildered by the change you have to make – here is help!

Do you need to make a change in your organisation?  Does the prospect feel overwhelming?  Well why not use the simplest model of change – the Freeze Phase Model, also known as Square-Blob-Star!  This post tells you how to use it!  If you care about leading you organisation well and if you are committed to being a good manager, you have all you need need to implement this approach well!

This post appeared on my blog in July 2009.  It is one of the most popular pieces here and I believe that many readers have found it useful!  So I am have revamped it slightly with some links to techniques to use when you implement the model.  I’ve seen this approach work many times.  I wish you luck with your change and if you would like further advice, please get in touch!

In the early 20th century, psychologist Kurt Lewin identified three stages of change that are still the basis of many approaches today.


People like to feel safe and in control and their sense of identity is tied into their present environment particularly if it has been relatively stable for a while!  This creates a feeling of comfort and any challenges to it even those which may offer significant benefit, can cause discomfort. See why change hurts! Talking about the future is rarely enough to move them from this ‘frozen’ state and significant work is usually required to ‘unfreeze’ them and get them moving.  In frustration some managers may revert to using a Push method to get them moving – coercing them into a change.  The Pull method of leadership, persuasion and modeling behavior takes longer but has a much better long term effect . The term ‘change ready’ is often used to describe people who are unfrozen and ready to take the next step. Some people come ready for change whilst others take a long time to let go of their comfortable current realities.


For Lewin change is a journey.  This journey may not be that simple and the person may need to go through several stages of misunderstanding before they get to the other side.  A classic trap in change is for the leaders to spend months on their own personal journeys and then expect everyone else to cross the chasm in a single bound. Transition takes time and needs leadership and support!   But sometimes  transition can also be a pleasant trap – it may feel better to travel hopefully than arrive – particularly for the team leading the change.


At the other end of the journey, the final goal is to ‘refreeze’, putting down roots again and establishing the new place of stability – embedding new processes and developing a new culture.  In practice, refreezing may be a slow process as transitions seldom stop cleanly, but go more in fits and starts with a long tail of bits and pieces. There are good and bad things about this.   In modern organizations, this stage is often rather tentative as the next change may well be around the next corner. What is often encouraged, then, is more of a state of ‘slushiness’ where freezing is never really achieved (theoretically making the next unfreezing easier). The danger with this that many organizations have found is that people fall into a state of change shock, where they work at a low level of efficiency and effectiveness as they await the next change.

You can find out more at the following links

More of the Freeze Phase/Square-Blob-Star Model – general introduction continued

Getting ready for the Change (Unfreeze) – some unfreezing techniques

Helping people to change (Transition) – constructive ways to manage transition

Completing the Change (Refreeze) – constructive ways to embed the change and make sure it sticks

King, Queen or Pawn – the Joys of Office Politics – Part 2 – Winning Support

A very good friend of mine had a lot of experience of both supporting and reviewing high profile government programmes. We worked together on a large complex programme that was beset with issues of office politics and complex (and often competing) stakeholder needs.  He read my post on office politics and here is his response – he is happy for me to share it with you.  It includes some very important advice for interim managers and consultants in particular. Thank you Howard!

“Inevitably large programmes have a number of stakeholders. The first thing to realise is that not all those stakeholders regard the programme as having the same priority-rating on their own “To Do” lists. A simple example is a major Change Programme which one stakeholder sees it as a major opportunity and another as a major threat.

The next thing to realise is that simply following process, e.g. PRINCE2 and/or MSP will not guarantee full control. I reviewed one big programme (via OGC) where for two years it was being reported as well on-time for delivery, then suddenly, as if out to the blue, it was announced 6 months behind schedule. The reason? While the monthly programme update reports from the front-line all arrived on time, they did not tell the whole truth, as those reporting only wanted to give the good news, not the bad. Pro-active reporting similar to audit would have prevented that.

The third major action is to be actively supportive, while not trying to grab the credit and the glory. When it comes to making presentations to senior management, e.g. the Permanent Secretary, Government Minister, make sure you always take a purely supportive role. Let the person who engaged you take the credit for doing so, not the blame for having to do so. Just remember that cartoon of the two cows standing in a field. The cow on the left says “Moo”. The cow on the right shouts “You b*****d, I was going to say that!”

Getting people on-side and supportive is what brings success – and lasting friendships”

Howard and I did form a very strong friendship after we had been through our baptism of fire and I am very grateful to him for contributing to this post.



King, Queen or Pawn – the Joys of Office Politics

Politics – activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization Oxford Dictionaries

I don’t play chess.  I admire those who do but for me the game is too slow to enjoy.  But I do know the rules!

For me Office Politics is just like that.  You may decide not to ‘play’ but you need to know how it works.

This is particularly true if you manage a project or a change programme.  If you don’t manage your stakeholders, your project or programme may be shot down in ways you never expected.

Stakeholder management doesn’t work if you don’t make sure you understand the politics of the organisation.

Wherever you have a group of people you will have a degree of politics operating.  People will usually jockey for position, form alliances, decide who they do like and who they don’t!  People will come to the group with different personalities, sets of values and opinions. Over time a group develops a set of norms or standards and ways of working. They develop a pecking order – a hierarchy of status and influence.  This will not necessarily reflect the organisation chart.  For example, the person who controls the stationery cupboard can have quite a lot of power to disrupt their colleague’s day, if they choose to do so!

If you don’t understand the influence hierarchy you can find it difficult to get things done, particularly if you are new to an organisation.  And the hierarchy will change over time, as people strive successfully and unsuccessfully to achieve greater influence.  You need to understand the office politics even if you find the concept distasteful. You will be very lucky indeed if someone actually tells you the rules of the game!

It is far better to adopt some useful strategies to keep the effects of office politics on you and your work to a minimum.  At the same time it will be useful to be classed as inside the influence group, as opposed to being on the outside looking in. What you are probably best to aim for is to manage any effects of office politics that directly relate to you!  Then turn them in your favour, or at least minimise their effects on you and your work.

Office politics in its crudest form usually occurs when one, or more than one, person holds (or is seen as holding) a significant amount of power within the office.  This may be formal power – the CEO’s private office is usually a hotbed of office politics – or informal power.  Formal power is pretty easy to read.  Informal power is much more difficult.  Informal power can arise in a number of ways! Someone with depth of knowledge of the organisation, the key subject matter expert, PAs to top managers,  may all wield considerable power and they are fairly easy to discover.  Far more challenging are the ‘office bully’, those in a relationship with someone holding formal power and unscrupulous players of the office politics’ game.  You need to listen and observe the group you work with and its surrounding organisation to find out more about these!

What can you do? Try to get to know the politically powerful within your organisation.  Don’t be afraid of them – they are often much, more receptive to people who aren’t intimidated by them!  Make sure they understand what you are trying to achieve.  Deal with their reservations and make sure they understand that you are taking on board their views.   If someone does try to undermine you, don’t get drawn in. Simply be bold and assertive, but not aggressive.  Make your points clearly and offer good will.  If their negative behaviour persists, then ring fence them – make sure they have as little as possible to do with your work.

People often play office politics because they are unsure about their own abilities and achievements.  They try to conceal what they believe are their shortcomings behind a façade and to make others feel they are less worthy. Don’t let them undermine your self-esteem – be proud of your own accomplishments and make sure that your efforts are recognised by those who matter.  But don’t get into direct competition if you can avoid it – it’s a waste of your time! If people know you are doing a good job consistently there is far less opportunity for you to be undermined.  Forming alliances with senior managers and using them as sponsors and champions for your work can increase your own informal power.  If you have a formal sponsor, make sure they are well informed and really up to date with your project or programme and can talk about it fluently to their colleagues.   As with all stakeholder management – targeted communication of  good quality of information is key to you and your project or programme’s success.

If you want to know more or do want to play the office politics game then here are some books that might be useful!

‘Office Politics: How work really works’ by Guy Browning

‘100+ Tactics for Office Politics (Barron’s Business Success)’ by Casey Hawley

For the really evil!

’21 Dirty Tricks at Work: How to Win at Office Politics’ by Mike Phipps, Colin Gautrey

What is it with Networking? How should I make those vital connections?

How many times have you heard the expression ‘It’s not what you know but who you know that counts!”?  Or perhaps you have heard references to the ‘Old Boy’s network’! Such a network is often blamed for an apparent high proportion of former pupils of public schools (usually male) in high status positions in government, business, and the professions. Networking has a long and somewhat chequered history.

I suppose for many of us in business, we can look back to the trade guilds for our inspiration and, of course, most of us have our professional and trade associations.  Networking has clearly stood the test of time!

At the moment there are a number of well publicised business networking organizations that create models of networking activity that allow the people to build new business relationships.  They are supposed to generate business opportunities at the same time.  So why, oh why, do I feel so uncomfortable when attending what are advertised as networking events.  I’ve thought about the issues and what would work for me and here are the rules I’m going to set myself in the future.

  1. Values – I will be true to myself and not behave at networking events differently to how I behave in the rest of my life.  I will be my usual pleasant self but I will not become an over- ebullient superwoman with a constant and somewhat inane smile on my face!  I will value the people I meet and listen to them, rather than simply seeking an opportunity to promote myself!
  2. Volume – I will attend fewer events that are focussed in my areas of interest.  I will work hard to contribute to them instead of ‘doing the rounds’ like a coach tripper ‘doing’ Europe in ten days – ‘Oh dear is it Venice today or did they say Vienna?’
  3. First View – Most people know by now that first impressions are very hard to undo!  I will show up looking as good as I can.  I usually turn up for work and social events that way anyway, so nothing too challenging there then.  Oh yes, in future, I will trot to the washroom when I arrive to check that the hair is still in place and that I don’t have froth, from the coffee I grabbed on the journey,  still on my bottom lip!
  4. 4. Verify/Research – I will do my best to research the event and who is likely to attend!  If I know who is going I can work out who I would like to meet.  This will save my feet and other people’s time! Meeting one or two like minded people is likely to be far more use than exchanging business cards like confetti and never following up – see below!
  5. Vision not version – I will share who I am and, if it is appropriate, my vision for the future and what I want to deliver.  I will not simply roll out a version of an advert for my services.  If I think I can add value, then I will say so!
  6. Vital – I will follow up! There is no point in spending time at networking events if you don’t actually follow up.  An entry in your contacts database is of limited use!  You need to reinforce your first meeting with something more substantial as a follow up.  Send the contact details you mentioned!  Find that book you referred to on Amazon and send the link.  If nothing else, send a thank-you note for their time and the interesting conversation.  Otherwise you are in danger of just becoming another name in what is probably a very long list!

So I am going to make a fresh start!  I shall be out there following valiantly my list above.  I hope I meet you on my travels in where was it?  Vienna, Venice, Oh Dear!