Alan Tracey is principal business adviser and coach with Knowledge Business Systems and a member of Society Toastmasters

Business communication can be both demanding and challenging, but breaking bad news takes it to an entirely different level. Accountants, whether as business owners themselves or managers within a firm, sometimes find themselves tolerating mediocrity and even poor performance from staff, suppliers or clients for years rather than dealing with it.

A true hallmark of competence and leadership is the manner in which difficulties are addressed, assessed and acted on in the best interests of the organisation. Delivering bad news is never going to be easy, but avoidance, delay and dishonesty are guaranteed to nurture a problem into a crisis.

A simple approach, both in execution and delivery, is best. Here are my recommended five steps: facts first, future focus, minimise the message, engage with empathy and foster feedback.

Facts first

What exactly is the nature of the problem, both in the short and the long term? Before you can proceed you have to know what has happened, why it has happened, and who (if anybody) is responsible – without ignoring your own impact through action or inaction.

Future focus

Once you understand the facts and their impact, you can project forward and determine the effects on the business – both immediate and future. Doing this will help you to identify what your options are.

Minimise the message

It is imperative to know exactly what your core message is, and then deliver it in a clear, consistent and succinct form. Recipients must realise that once the principal point has been delivered, nothing else will be heard. Good leaders will have stated the cause and follow-up actions in a brief preamble.

Engage with empathy

In considering the most appropriate way to communicate the news, think first of the people on the receiving end. Almost invariably, it is better to communicate bad news face to face. If necessary, do so via some form of video. Recipients normally consider the delivery of bad news in written form (letter, email, text message or otherwise) as a cowardly act – which will inevitably damage any remaining vestige of credibility. Honest facts simply stated, without embellishment or emotion, is the only acceptable form of delivery.

Foster feedback

There may be emotional responses – possibly anger and outbursts – to bad news. Acknowledge and accept the responses with kindness and consideration but without deviating from your stated message. Don’t delay your planned exit.

Keep it simple

The most effective formula is simple:

  • Know what you want say: the facts, the impact and the follow-up action
  • Know how you want to say it: simply, truthfully and with your audience in mind
  • Say it and get back to business: now is the time for leaders to show the way forward