Who should break the bad news?

In the first of a new column, Jenny Davenport advises choosing the messenger
to suit the message

It’s redundancy time again with organisations back in restructuring and
downsizing mode. It raises some particular challenges for internal
communication.

The issue organisations most often bungle is the choice of messenger. Survey
after survey shows that line managers are the preferred and most credible
communicators for most topics with their teams.

They can make the information relevant to their teams and people rarely feel
constrained about expressing their views in the safety of their own team
meetings. So with a good feedback system, the organisation can have a quick
sense of people’s reactions.

However, it is worth considering when line managers are not the right
messengers.

This can be when the information is outside their experience and they cannot
add value to it by explaining the relevance to the team, or reasonably answer
questions about it. This scenario might include for example major strategic
change.

This sort of communication is best done by more senior managers and by
written material which people can absorb at their leisure. The right time for
managers to be the channel for communication is when plans are being
contemplated.

Line managers are also not the most appropriate when decisions are being
contemplated or communicated that are potentially worse news for managers than
their teams.

In one bad example, an organisation was centralising a service. It was
formerly provided by a number of regional departments, but surveys indicated
that customers wanted a consistent service no matter where in the country they
were. Regional managers were to lose some of their responsibilities, but they
were the only losers. There would be no danger of job losses to their teams.

It was indeed good news for some team members who were bearing the brunt of
discontented customers complaining about the variable service.

The organisation had an excellent and well-established team-briefing system,
which was used to communicate this change without really considering how the
message would be relayed by angry regional managers.

There was uproar among their teams, with an inundation of furious feedback
forms and quite unnecessary indignation. The lesson learned was that when the
message is bad news for managers or team leaders, make sure a more senior
manager does the communicating.

Jenny Davenport, director of People in Business

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