Practical Application: Delivering Negative Messages in the Workplace

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

All managers will convey difficult information from time to time, but the right delivery method can change everything. Most people value painful transparency over feel-good deception.


Most people would rather hear a painful truth than a palatable lie. Delivering difficult messages is an unavoidable part of leadership, but let's look at a scenario in which a manager has some options for communicating a tough truth.

Justin had been with ABC Rent-a-Car for almost five years, and his work ethic made him a rising star. After only a few months as the on-duty supervisor, Justin's boss transferred out. When the regional manager came to discuss the transition, she asked Justin if he could step up as the site's general manager. Justin eagerly accepted the opportunity.

It would have been hard to find another employee as enthusiastic and dedicated as Justin. He was the first to arrive, the last to leave, and he prided himself on being a likable manager who was capable of fixing just about any problem that came his way. About a year into his new role, Justin's new boss, the regional manager who promoted him, announced that she too would be transferring to another location.

A few months after the new regional manager had been assigned, Justin wasn't feeling so good anymore. It seemed like his new boss was constantly correcting him. Unbeknownst to Justin, his work performance in his new role was actually unsatisfactory. His budget was too large, his sales were too small, and he spent most of his time putting out fires rather than fixing real problems. The sum total of these shortcomings was that Justin's boss determined that he was not fully capable of the role he was in, and she had already made the decision that Justin had to go. Now, if there was just an easy way to explain this to Justin...


What are some of the options available to Justin's new boss in this circumstance? As we look at a few options and their outcomes, keep in mind that all options will end with Justin's departure. Although we'll explore multiple options, remember that the presentation of an option doesn't mean that it's the right one, the ethical one, or even the legal one.

When the time came to let Justin know he could no longer remain in the role, his new boss asked him to join her in doing a walk-through of the rental cars parked outside.

Option 1: Focus on the Good and Minimize the Bad

After a few minutes of small talk, Justin's new manager said, ''Justin, you're a fantastic person. I admire your work ethic, your enthusiasm, and your dedication to the customer. Sometimes great people aren't cut out for a particular job, and I'm concerned that this is the case here. Although I love your positive attitude, there are performance gaps in some significant areas like sales, spending, and getting to the root cause of important issues. I don't think this is your fault at all. You needed a close mentor for this role, and we weren't really able to do that. With some solid coaching, you'll be able to close those knowledge gaps. But since you're the highest level manager here, there isn't anyone who can do that for you. We want to help you to ''go up and out'' into a different opportunity.''

Option 2: It's a Business Decision

''Justin,'' his new manager said. ''As you know, our sites are held to some high standards with regard to sales, revenue, and spending. My region has 13 sites, and this site has been consistently and substantially under-performing all of my other stores. If the gaps between where we are and where we need to be were smaller, there's a chance we could turn it around with you still at the helm. As it is, that's not the case. We've decided to bring in a ''turn-around'' consultant who will manage the site for 18 months. Then the company will decide if it's feasible to keep the site open or if it will have to close. With this in mind, we won't be needing your role moving forward. Let's go back and I'll help you get your things and complete the paperwork.''

Option 3: Ambiguity as a Risk-Reducer

Luckily for Justin's new manager, the state is a ''right to work'' state. This means that the law allows Justin to be terminated, ''At any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.'' The company's legal counsel told her that she should be intentionally vague so as not to open the door to a negative response. To that end, Justin's new boss told him, ''Justin, in looking at the whole of this situation the company needs a better fit in this role. I'm sorry it didn't work out. I'll help you gather your things and walk you out to your car.''

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