Leaders deliver bad news

Nashville Business Journal

April 19, 2019


Nobody likes delivering bad news. But there are times when leaders must do the hard work. Sometimes the tough topic is employee performance or a structural change in the organization. It could be an operational catastrophe or any raft of other issues that come along with managing people in the workplace. 

Like all companies, Tractor Supply had its share of bad news to deliver. For example, when I joined the organization I knew the company soon would be relocating from Chicago to one of four cities. 

As the new vice president of personnel it was my job to manage much of this transition process, including shutting down a rumor mill gone wild. In this case, honest communication paid off. 

First, we confirmed with staff the relocation site: Nashville. Then we announced dates for the next steps. Some personnel were invited to move. Others could take advantage of severance packages and employment-assistance programs. With the clear communication, there was nothing left to talk about. We all got back to work—and almost every employee stayed during the final months in Chicago.  

Twenty years later we had outgrown our Indianapolis distribution center. Not surprisingly, productivity had declined. But the grapevine spun a story before we made our final construction commitment. Without a known location, I had to explain to both shifts the necessity for a larger facility, even though we didn’t know where that would be! With the quick and honest communication, productivity stabilized and only a couple employees left during the time of uncertainty. 

I learned a lot from these experiences—and many more that followed. Here are some tips that might help leaders navigate the choppy waters of change: 

1. Don’t panic. Sit back and think through the issues. Develop a methodical and logical approach to delivering the bad news. Think about the result you expect to achieve. Then work backward through the actions you must take to achieve that result. Plan carefully and when possible work with trusted associates. Solid preparation is the best way to keep things from falling off the rails.

2. Don’t procrastinate. Bad news usually gets worse, and in some cases much worse, if you “wait it out.” You can’t put it aside and hope it might go away. To show true leadership in the face of adversity, you must take charge. Address the issue maturely, directly and with a sense of urgency.

3. Don’t speculate. Often the bad news leaders have to deliver relates to poor employee performance. Start by reviewing the facts. Verify that you have all the pertinent, accurate information in hand. Plan your conversation carefully and set a time to talk. Stick to the facts, stay positive and don’t get emotional. But don’t forget to listen carefully, because there may be more to the story than you realized. Outline the next steps and work toward a conclusion that you can both agree on. 

As leaders it’s often our responsibility to deliver unpleasant messages. But keep an open mind. Once people hear the truth they often bond to help the whole organization get through the challenges ahead. So when it’s your turn to deliver bad news, plan your communication carefully, and deliver it as honestly and quickly as you can. And for big announcements always try to beat the grapevine. Good luck!


Joe Scarlett is the retired CEO of Tractor Supply Company
For more on leadership see joescarlett.com
Or write Joe at Joe@joescarlett.com

Comments and Discussion:


Posted Apr 24, 2019 at 12:35 PM by John Lueken
Really enjoyed this piece and appreciate you pulling it together. There are so many nuggets of wisdom in this article. Being transparent and honest is a wildly overlooked quality. So much of life is showing up...in good times and bad. Great article and one that I will absolutely share with my firm. Thank you again.

Posted Apr 24, 2019 at 10:40 AM by Linda Hamilton
Joe, I whole heartedly agree with you. Sometimes the "fear of the unknown" causes turmoil. Sharing information, whether good news or bad news, typically eases fears and concerns, and prevents rumors. It might not be the easiest task, but most times early communication is the best. Nice article.


Posted Apr 24, 2019 at 9:49 AM by Bob A.
Joe - this post is very helpful. I once had a boss who encouraged us to embrace giving bad news, a similar thought. If we can be more transparent as leaders, we earn trust and loyalty. Well said!

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