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The Big Story: When Your Boss Is Crying, but You’re the One Being Laid Off

“Chief executives have long studied how to deliver good news and bad news. They’ve trained themselves to pitch big ideas and shoot down middling ones. Now they have a new skill to learn: the art of being vulnerable.”

What It Means for You

You’ve been living with the news for the past two quarters. We’ve been writing about it: Healthcare is having a tough moment. Big names are reporting big losses. Staffing costs remain sky high. Rural hospitals are on the bubble. Just about everyone is delivering bad news.

As you have difficult conversations, there are two tendencies that anchor either end of the spectrum. One is to be entirely dispassionate. Just the facts, ma’am. The other is to let your emotions out – all the way. The challenge? Balancing your vital role of processing and delivering tough news with the authenticity and transparency that’s important to you and your audience. People want leaders who are “real,” who show they’re human. It’s part of what employees today want in a positive workplace culture. A sense of belonging and value.

How do you do that, though? It’s a fine line. Go too far one way and you’re a walking spreadsheet. Go the other and you become a meme.

The key is to remember: You’re not the hero of the story. You’re the guide, helping your people navigate their own challenges. Flip the perspective to what they need to see, and hear, and you’ll be in a much less awkward spot.

Similarly, we need to equip others to do the same. You’ve learned this over the past two-plus years. You and your team have been delivering hard news piled on top of even harder news, having to manage your own emotions all the while. Our research confirms the best approach: Healthcare workers continue to trust their direct manager more than any other leader. (Shameless self-promo: Our next survey with that data and much more drops later this month.) So, arm those leaders —and the CEOs who are the external faces of companies – to communicate with appropriate vulnerability that keeps them real, fosters an open culture and healthy relationships. Without emoting. Or overstepping into the private space of their employees.

Here’s our advice to anyone leading and communicating tough news.

  • Let direct managers be direct managers. Leaders, keep them equipped and trust them. They’re on the ground with your employees. They have the trust and the direct line to what’s being said – and what’s needed. Give them resources and training to strengthen those ties. Managers, get to know your team, but read the room carefully and respect personal boundaries.
  • Be who you are. As you’re present with your team, be real. Naturally quiet? That’s fine. Expressive? Great. Don’t try to force a false sense of who you are. Yes, we tend to equate warmth with authenticity, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Be yourself, consistently, so people know what to expect, how to read you and how to interact with you. Don’t put on a mask for the big news. And, yes, that might mean a few tears.
  • Back your words – and emotions – with action. Another teaser alert: Our upcoming survey shows that two phrases nurses never want to hear again are “We’re in this together” and “Hey, can you pick up another shift?” When a leader uses, “We’re in this together” to placate employees right before asking them to do more – like, say, skip their kid’s tee-ball game and work next Saturday – it demonstrates that, well, we’re not really in this together. Your message must match the actions that follow. No amount of crying can cover for a disconnect.
  • Don’t overstep. If you sense you’re invading your employees’ privacy by asking them at each Monday’s stand-up what they did over the weekend, then don’t. Some people are tired of sharing the nuances of their private lives. Respect that.
  • Be there as CEO. Always. Just because people prefer to hear from their direct managers doesn’t mean executive leaders should avoid being visible. On the contrary, it’s both right and necessary. But you need to be visible for all times and in all situations – especially for the average-routine-operations kind of days. If you show up only in the biggest moments – a major success or the reveal of bad news – you’ll do more harm than good. You won’t have the credibility to be given the benefit of the doubt.
  • CEOs, stay out of the way. Wait, isn’t that at odds with the above? Sort of. Maybe a better way to put it is to say, “Find the balance” or “Don’t try too hard.” If you equip and trust your managers, you can rest assured that they are building and cultivating relationships that can keep teams aligned and working toward the ultimate mission. You should be walking the halls. But not hovering.

It’s all a fine balance. And social media will always find something to criticize. “Too many tears!” Or on the heartless side, “No emotion, that was ruthless!” “They shared it on Zoom! Not in person!? C’mon!” But that no-win environment is already baked in. So, don’t worry about it. Lead in a way that is consistent with who you are and the values of your organization. Trust your people, continue making the hard decisions, look people in the eye and say what needs to be said.

Just, maybe, don’t take a photo of yourself while you’re doing it.


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