Delivering Unwelcome News

If you have ever been through traditional sales training, you no doubt remember the attention given to closing skills. These techniques frequently featured directive (dare I say manipulative) questions sales types unveiled when they felt it was time to shut down an interaction, create a sense of urgency and (one way or another) “move on.”

Research on the deployment of these techniques has consistently revealed the following:

  1. If you are selling a relatively unsophisticated product or service to a customer you may never see or speak to, again, your highest probability of success is to close early and often, and effectively force your will during the transaction.
  2. Conversely, if you are selling a sophisticated product or service to a customer you will actively engage with on a recurring basis, establishing and enhancing your reputation as a true partner is paramount (i.e., less closing more preparation, empathy and demonstrated support).

With that as a backdrop, when we find ourselves in positions to influence others (sales, management, parenting, etc.), it is important to consider the path we choose to follow prior to engaging. Will the influence opportunity be a transactional imperative where we are obligated to communicate a message and “close a deal,” so we do? Or will we approach it, regardless of the competing responses that hover for our attention, as a data point in a chain of evidence that will eventually define our leadership legacy?

Consider a challenging hypothetical as a test case. A scenario most in people management would just as soon avoid (if only they could): terminating someone’s employment. Admittedly, the circumstances surrounding this task can contribute greatly to the specific tactics employed, but details aside, I would suggest there are paths to pursuing this exchange that bear a striking resemblance to a transactional sales type—or an alternative (much higher degree of difficulty) route that will be a clear indicator when all is said and done—of your leadership legacy.

Transactional

  • Disengage: Emotionally extricate yourself from the conversation you are about to have
  • Rip the band-aid off: Say what needs to be said in as little time as possible
  • Move on: Refocus your energy and attention immediately

Reputation Building

  • Prepare: As “difficult conversations” go, few are more challenging than placing a detour in the career path of an associate (especially if the associate in question has met or exceeded performance expectations and is being “let go” for reasons far beyond their control). Give the individual the respect they have earned by being as prepared as you can possibly be
  • Open with empathy: The eventual road to rejuvenated energy initiates with empathy (whether that gesture is appreciated in the moment or not). Think Brené Brown here (“getting through eight seconds of discomfort”). Plan and practice an opening that positions what needs to be done without passing judgment or impugning personal dignity. Make no mistake about it—this is extremely difficult. The trap many fall into is to “overdo the empathy” which makes delivery of the message that much more difficult. One sentence—perhaps two—delivered transparently and from the heart to set an appropriate tone for transition
  • Have a list: Atul Gawande wrote a best-selling book entitled “The Checklist Manifesto.” In it, he provides reason after reason why it makes sense to “make a list” when you are doing things of import. In that regard, when you are tasked with the responsibility of ending a colleague’s employment, do two things:
    • Make a list
    • Openly refer to it during the discussion
    • If nothing else, taking the time to thoughtfully prepare and sequence a list of items that need to be communicated will demonstrate you have taken this responsibility seriously while also providing you with the structure necessary to effectively navigate the discussion

Good sales people consistently have the best interests of their customers in mind. It’s what distinguishes them (by reputation) from their competitors. Along similar lines, good managers are distinguished by their comparative leadership legacies, and those legacies (in large part) are a function of how they deliver unwelcome news.