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

Melissa Delay helps CEOs find good ways to deliver bad news. That her business has increased exponentially due to the pandemic may come as no surprise.

DeLay has perfected a framework for guiding companies through difficult situations during 22 years in crisis and strategic communications consulting with his Roseville-based firm, TruPerception.

“There’s a science behind communication,” Delay said. “There is a specific way of writing words. There are words to avoid, there are words to use. There is an exact time to deliver a message. There are a few times you have to repeat it for it to really resonate. There are the right vehicles to use.”

Too many CEOs don’t realize, however, that closed-door meetings and bad body language, for example, speak volumes even when they’re not making announcements or emailing an issue.

“The world is actually full of bad news,” Delay said. “Unfortunately, very few people know how to speak and write in a way that is transparent, gets results, helps them get out of a position of power and doesn’t take advantage of them or come across as bossy, pushy or aggressive, things that which no leader really wants to be seen as.”

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

They may be useful based on what DeLay sees as the leaders who need the most help now. In one camp are companies that are growing, making acquisitions and looking for talent, but are struggling to keep up with the constant rapid growth. In the other are those who are starting to cut back, cut costs and fear where the economy will go.

Informal communication is more powerful than formal messages, Delay said. Some leaders have done better during the pandemic by letting their guard down a bit to get to know employees, although some of that “organic and natural” communication is disappearing.

“I tell leaders all the time that if you want productivity to increase, you have to make it clear in your communication that you care about the people who work for you,” Delay said.

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

Before making an announcement about a disruption, senior executives should prepare front-line managers to answer questions, as employees will be the first to approach them.

Leaders need to be more informal and more transparent, Delay said. But they shouldn’t wear their heart on their sleeve. In a recent email to clients, DeLay wrote about a CEO who posted a photo of himself crying after laying off two employees.

“I would tell that CEO that what matters most is the employee in this situation — not the leader,” Delay said. “Talk to your executive coach, your mom, your dog or your best friend, someone else to get the help you need to get through this.”

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

“Be transparent, be authentic, but don’t let emotion enter the equation right now,” Delay said. “Just hit the pause button so you can communicate and get your brain working and get the best possible result. You want to show empathy, but don’t let your emotions lead you. A leader’s job is to neutralize the emotion.”

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

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