ISHN Guest BlogOriginally posted on Peter Sandman’s website

Nicole Hunter, government employee and consultant in Australia, questioned Peter Sandman on April 17, 2013 about an aspect of outrage management:

I am familiar with the “delivering bad news” pointers that are already here on your website. But I was wondering about “bad news” when it is not about hazard – for example when a decision is made to not implement the community’s desires for a local building to be in a certain spot (for various reasons, some of which are very good, others of which aren’t!).

What pointers apply for delivering the “decision that they didn’t want,” as opposed to “delivering bad news”? The bad news pointers don’t seem to fit the bill for this situation.

Peter responds:

You’re absolutely right that telling people they’re at risk is very different from telling them you’re not going to do what they want.

In fact, people who are upset about a situation they consider dangerous typically feel better when you tell them they’re at risk; they’re gratified that you think so too. But when you tell them you think their risk is very small – good news in principle – then they’re likely to get all the more outraged, especially when it means you don’t plan to take action to protect them.

So what are some pointers for delivering disappointing news? Here are four that come immediately to mind.

Say the news is disappointing, and say why.

If you have to tell people something they don’t want to hear, don’t add insult to injury by pretending they shouldn’t mind hearing it. Tell them upfront that they’re not going to like what you’ve got to say.

If possible, tell them that first, even before you tell them the substance of your decision. This gives them a moment to brace themselves, and avoids any possibility that they’ll think you’re trying to put one over on them.

Then, a bit later in your message, return to the subject of their disappointment. Show you understand why your news is disappointing. Show you know what they wanted you to decide and understand their reasons – not just why they wanted it but also why they thought it was the right decision.

This is a special case of one of the favorite phrases of my wife and colleague Jody Lanard: her advice to “tell people stories about themselves.” As Jody stresses again and again, it’s always a good idea to talk more about your audience and less about yourself. But it’s especially important when you’re delivering disappointing news to make sure people can tell you know they’re disappointed.

Explain your rationale.

Of course you should also explain why you made the decision you did. The more thoroughly you have demonstrated your familiarity with the case for a different decision, the more you have earned the right to explain the rationale for the decision you actually made.

Try to frame this explanation from the viewpoint of your disappointed stakeholders. In other words, why you decided the way you did is less important than why they might have made the same decision in your shoes. That might mean focusing on the ways your decision could work out okay for them. It might mean focusing on the problem of compromising the interests of stakeholders with widely divergent interests and needs.

It’s seldom wise to flat-out say “in my shoes you might have made the same decision I made.” In fact, you may want to say the opposite: “I don’t expect you to find my reasons all that convincing. I suppose you’d probably have made a different decision in my shoes.” Even so, frame your decision in terms of values and perspectives you think will feel compelling to them, rather than ones they’re likely to find alien and off-putting. With luck, your adroit use of the risk communication seesaw here might even provoke some sympathy for your decision.

Outline your process.

People who dislike the substance of a decision want to know in detail what process led to that decision. Often they’re legally entitled to know; whether entitled or not, they’ll do everything in their power to find out. Even if the process fell far short of ideal, it’s usually wiser to describe it accurately than to try to misrepresent it or ignore it.

If your decision-making process was good, that will help you defend the outcome – not just in litigation (if litigation is on the horizon); not just in the opinion of interested bystanders; but even in the minds of your disappointed stakeholders themselves. There is ample evidence that people can tolerate an adverse decision with less outrage if they feel that they and their viewpoint were listened to before the decision was reached.

There are three main signs of an acceptable process from the perspective of those who are disappointed about the decision itself.

  • Did they or people who share their viewpoint have access to the decision-makers, and were their voices heard?
  • Were there internal champions of their viewpoint? That is, was anyone inside your organization on their side? (For the case for acknowledging that they had internal champions, if in fact they did, see my 2006 column on “‘Speak with One Voice’ – Why I Disagree.”)
  • Was the final decision influenced? Even though you ultimately decided against them, are there aspects of the decision that reflect concessions to their position?

Notice that you’re not just reporting on your responsiveness here. You’re also reporting on their effectiveness as advocates for their viewpoint. To the extent that you can accurately do so, frame your process description that way: “Every time we scheduled a public meeting, you guys were there. I know you don’t like where we ended up, but it’s a long way from where we might have ended up without you!”

Outline their options (if they have any).

It is seldom smart to misrepresent the power of disappointed stakeholders – in either direction. If your decision is pretty much a done deal and they’re profoundly unlikely to be able to get it changed, say that. If your decision is largely wishful thinking and there’s no way you’ll be able to implement it if they keep objecting, say that. If the truth is somewhere in the middle, as it usually is, say that.

Readers who doubt the wisdom of being so candid about your disappointed stakeholders’ power should read the section entitled “Acknowledge how much power your opponents have” in my 2008 column on “Managing Justified Outrage.”

Having acknowledged their power, get concrete about their options. If they can go over your head to the Commissioner or the Mayor or the CEO, say so – and provide the right person’s contact information. If there are already organizations voicing opposition to your decision, name them and, again, give contact information. If there’s an oversight group that routinely second-guesses your agency’s policies, refer them to that. Help orient your disappointed stakeholders to the options you think a knowledgeable opponent might want to pursue.

It may seem counterintuitive to help people register their objections to your decision, but it’s cost-free. You’re not telling them anything they wouldn’t figure out for themselves in due time. And the fact that it’s you telling them helps establish that you don’t consider your organization’s decisions to have been brought down from Mount Sinai. It says you realize your decisions are debatable, and you genuinely believe those who disagree should feel free to join the debate.