How To Deliver Bad News

If you're a manager, and you're giving a performance review, your task is easy—assuming, of course, the employee's performance is either amazingly good, or amazingly bad.

You've got a one-note message.

But how do you tell someone that she's "meeting some expectations," or that on a 1-5 scale, where 5 is best, she's, roughly, a "3?"

That's a two-note message. That's the message most employees get.

Bernhard Lang | Getty Images

The danger with a two-note message is that one part crowds out the other.

Tell someone he's a "3," and that may be the last thing he hears.

"I'm a 3? That's no good. And what about my personal life—will anyone date a 3?"

It's like dropping a bomb.

Speaking of which, a similar problem, larger in scale, now faces the U.S. government. It's got a new, two-note message about public safety:

1) If terrorists explode a nuclear bomb,

2) stay indoors.

Stay indoors??? That's something your mother might say about a thunderstorm. Apparently though, it could save your life.

Remaining in your car is ok, and if you're parked in an underground garage, that's even better ("U.S. Rethinks Strategy for the Unthinkable," NY Times, 12/15/10).

But let's face it. That's a hard message to get across.

Because the moment you say, "Suppose a terrorist detonated a nuclear bomb in NYC," one's brain goes impressively haywire, and all one basically hears is Horrible, Horrible, Horrible, Horrible.

There's no way the government could, credibly, deliver this message.

But Hollywood could.

Imagine a disaster movie, starring Harrison Ford as the take-charge, radiation-fighting manager of a Manhattan parking garage.

He'd save thousands of lives. Then he'd validate everyone's parking ticket.

You and I would watch the movie, get absorbed by the story, and learn the message.

We wouldn't like the message. It's not a feel-good message: "FINALLY, SOME WONDERFUL NEWS ABOUT UNDERGROUND PARKING!"

But we'd hear it.

Let's apply that to the performance review. If someone's a "3," your goal isn't to get him to kick off his shoes, and dance with glee on the table.

Your goal is to get him to watch the movie—to see how to act, to believe it's possible, and then, to commit to a plan for moving forward.

Tip: When communicating a tough message, prepare your story. A good story offers hope.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (, Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to