Communication of bad news

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I just read T.N.Hari’s excellent write up on “Firing someone you deeply admire.” Brought back a lot of memories of the last few days of Stayzilla. There were anxious moments, and then resignation to what had to happen, and the morbid planning sessions. Morbid because, they are just emotionally taxing, but it has got to be done. What has to be done, has to be done. And in the most humane way and with utmost empathy. A lot of thoughts flew through my mind, as I recollected those days, and I thought I should jot them down here.

  • Proper crafting of communication is super super important. And I feel I am still understating it. The message, the timing, the tone … all of it should be crafted very carefully. These messages touch raw nerves.
  • Communication should be consistent across the organization. What the sales leader communicates to his team should be exactly what the Engineering leader does, and what the Product leader does, and of course, exactly similar to what the CEO says, in the last townhall.
  • In the event, the above cannot be done – sometimes it happens that some functions need to be given a different message – all leaders need to know what the different messages are, and why they were different. Because, there will be questions, and you should answer them.
  • Timeline of events on the D-Day is very critical. There should be absolutely no ambiguity. For instance, in the first instance of letting go, at Stayzilla, in the town-hall, it was announced that, some of the folks are going to be let go, and their managers would let them know. We timed it in such a way, that we had the emails ready to be sent, and were fired off the minute the town-hall ended. Folks should not have to wait and second-guess stuff like this.
  • Empathy is the single most important thing during these times. And by that, I mean genuine empathy. It is extremely difficult when the decision goes against folks whom you know well, and especially hard, when you know it is not fair on that individual (decision was not made based on performance).
  • Organizations tend to be uneven and imbalanced sometimes. It is important to share the load of communicating bad news and lending emotional support, between leaders. For example, the dev team was much larger than the product and design teams put together. Hence, the product leaders took on some of the engineering conversations too.
  • Of course, care has to be taken, that the leader communicating the news has to have had some professional relationship with the person on the other side. Else it is just apathy.
  • I had superb leaders from whom I learnt from, during this very difficult time. One must dispose of one’s ego, and be open to learning and sharing, during these hard times.
  • I wish, this is one thing that founders, and other leaders, get coached on. I have seen and interacted with several people who fail miserably in these soft people aspects. And I think it is incredibly important. God forbid, such an eventuality should never occur in your org, but one must be prepared.

The above points are in no particular order. I just did a tweet-storm on it, and subsequently expanded them into this post. Would love to hear your thoughts/experiences on this.

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