Communicating change and difficult conversations at work

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The Ripple Team

on August 07 2020

Internal communication Advice Employees Management Leadership
Ripple intranet - Someone having a difficult discussion at work

‘Don’t shoot the messenger!’

Delivering bad, difficult or unexpected news is never fun. It’s telling that there’s an entire phrase designed to prevent people from getting shot for bearing bad news. It makes sense that many avoid it wherever possible.

For those in leadership positions, communicating change and having difficult conversations are part of the job description. Here’s how to get the process right.

Don’t avoid it

The only thing worse than receiving bad news is receiving bad news late. The same goes for learning about change – if you don’t have time to prepare, process or respond, it’s more stressful. Research has shown that people prefer receiving bad news directly than the ‘beat around the bush’ approach.

It’s a lot like avoiding the dentist: the longer you wait, the worse it’ll get. Good leaders don’t wait for things to get worse before communicating about a problem or a change – look at New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, who is enjoying the highest approval ratings in a century as a direct result of her immediate, no-nonsense approach to the recent pandemic. Or how about Boris Jo… never mind.

At some point, the truth will have to come out. If you work in a small business, it’s likely that people already know or suspect the news, but they’re waiting for you to officially break it. By holding off, you’ll only damage your own reputation and miss out on the chance to collectively find a solution.

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Prepare yourself

While you should communicate sooner rather than later, it’s not a good idea to rip off the band-aid without planning first. Entering into a difficult exchange without preparing beforehand is a recipe for disaster. Decide what you want to say and how you’re going to respond to questions before delivering news.

Business social scientist Joseph Grenny recommends asking yourself a few questions ahead of time:

‘What do I really want for me? For the other person? For the relationship? For other stakeholders?’

Entering conversation with clear goals makes it easier to stay on track and on-message. Present the reasoning, evidence and conclusion behind the news. This will eliminate unnecessary confusion – and leave the door open enough for employees to offer constructive opinions.


Don’t throw a grenade and bolt out of the room. Brave the blast and listen to what people have to say. A Salesforce study found that employees who feel like they’re ‘being heard’ at work are five times more likely to perform at their best, so stick around and have a conversation.

Aside from the fact that it’ll cultivate some good will at a potentially challenging time for the business, it’s also a chance for employees to share their thoughts on the news you’ve delivered. If you’ve prepared for the conversation, you’ll be able to answer any questions they might have – and process suggestions and alternative solutions.

Don’t brush off dissenting opinions. Think about them. If they’re obviously not going to work, refer to the reasoning again. You may not have expressed your thought process clearly enough. If there’s potential in a suggestion, explore it more with your staff. You’re the leader, but if people are willing to help then you should be open to it.

Continue the conversation

The work doesn’t end once you’ve broken the news. Following up with consistent updates is vital, especially if you’ve made any promises. Failing to do so sends a pretty dire message to your staff: either you didn’t listen, or you don’t care. Getting it right has the opposite effect – studies suggest that regular communication is a ‘leading factor in a transformation’s success’.

Having difficult discussions at work will never be easy. Thankfully, it’s much like juggling or burping the alphabet – with practice, it’ll get easier and easier. Wait too long or decide to avoid the discussion altogether, and you’ll never get better. By preparing, listening and following up, you’ll create the opportunity for a positive outcome.

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