This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
About five years ago, I received a call from a client, the head of a pharmaceutical sales organization. He wanted to schedule a coaching session so he could prepare for what he termed "a set of tense and difficult upcoming conversations."
When we sat down, I could see that he was visibly upset. He told me that while his sales team had been performing well, the company had just endured a difficult year, and that he had been told to lay off 40 people. He was furious that he had to fire people who were "doing their jobs well" and sad that he had to "put people on the street because of the research and development team's failure to actually get new patented drugs that we can sell."
He said he was "torn between speaking the truth and telling my team they are being screwed, and sounding like a corporate flack and telling them this is for the good of the company." He wondered what he should do and felt that he would either come off as angry or a phony.
It's a situation we see all too frequently. Managers and executives are often put in a position where they have to deliver tough messages or news about decisions that they don't understand or with which they disagree. They feel they either have to swallow their own views and "represent the company position" or they speak the truth and "throw the business under the bus."
But there is another way. Leaders can find a way to deliver a message that they believe in and that also allows them to stand behind their organization. Here's how:
1. Make the choice to lead
Leaders recognize that during challenging circumstances, others look to them to provide hope, positivity and a path forward. While it can be tempting to bond through negativity or to even avoid saying anything at all, it's crucial that you make the choice to speak, and to do so as an act of leadership.
I remember a town hall where the leadership team had to stand up and address (somewhat well-founded) accusations of failing to promote minorities and women. One executive who did have a track record of supporting diversity actually agreed with the critics. His initial impulse was to refuse to stand on stage and "take the hit for the others on our leadership team."
I asked him whether he was planning to resign from the leadership team or the company entirely. "Of course not," he replied, puzzled at my question. "Then you need to be up there with your colleagues, and to figure out what you need to say to those who want to hear that diversity does matter to you and that changes will be coming."
He made that choice and the audience took heart that his presence signalled something might change.
2. Find a message that you can stand behind
When you've chosen to lead, figure out what you can say with authenticity. Focus on a single clear message that sums up the belief you wish to convey. Write it down. Practise saying it out loud. And make sure you can deliver it with confidence and conviction.
I remember one mining general manager whose request for capital was denied. His team had been griping about the decision. While he was also disappointed, he looked them in the eye and said, "It's us who need to look in the mirror, go back to the drawing board, and find a way to make this business case more compelling." They thought about it, went back to work, and ultimately got the capital they were seeking.
3. Avoid negatives
Leaders recognize that while negatives may be "true," they can also be deeply demotivating and can even exacerbate the impact of difficult news.
That's because bad emotions have far greater impact than positive ones. (Check out the 2001 journal article, "Bad is Stronger Than Good" in the The Review of General Psychology for more on this).
So while leaders must be willing to acknowledge difficult realities, they ultimately need to take their audience to a place of positivity. If you can't say anything good about the decision, simply say, "It wasn't my call, but ultimately I will support it because the company has asked me to do so, and we need to get behind it."
4. Make sure you are standing behind your company
Unless you are planning to resign, you cannot deliver a message that throws the company under the bus. Not only will it leave your audience resentful and demotivated, but it will also undermine your future ability to lead. Imagine trying to ask your people to follow an unpopular strategy just a month after slamming the company for "poor strategic thinking." That's why you need to find a way to stand behind your organization when you speak, while also staying true to your own views.
It's never easy when you are asked to convey difficult messages – and it's even more challenging when you don't believe in the decisions that led to those messages being needed. Yet the most effective leaders recognize that in such instances, avoiding the issue or casting negative light on their organization ultimately has a negative impact on their audiences and on their own leadership presence.
The key to speaking as a leader is to instead find a positive, realistic message you can deliver that allows you to stand behind your organization.
The pharma executive who had to lay off his sales people got to that message eventually. At the end of our session, he told me that, "I will look my team in the eye and tell them that while we can't offer them a job any longer, our company and I personally will do everything we can to help them find a new job." He then went on to talk about the large severance payment, outplacement coaching, and his own network that he would tap to assist them.
It didn't make the news any easier to deliver, but he could deliver the message with integrity. Sometimes, that's all leaders need to do.
Bart Egnal (@THG_Bart) is president and CEO of the Humphrey Group Inc., a Toronto-based leadership and communications training firm.