Breaking bad news; it can keep you awake at night, can’t it? There’s no worse feeling than looking someone in the eye and knowing that you’ve got news that’s going to hurt them, disappoint them, or even send their career spinning off the tracks—for a while, at least.
And there’s no getting away from it; you’ve got to pull up your big boy (or girl) pants and get on with it. But there’s plenty you can do to mitigate the effects of it, and that’s not about you—it’s all about telling the news straight, but doing it in a way that works for the person you’re dealing with.
At my company, the basis of our main product, Insights Discovery, is what we call the four color energies. Essentially, every single one of us has a preferred way of being, and that’s what we call your dominant color energy (mine is Sunshine Yellow, which probably explains why I’m desperately connecting with you all through your screens—more on that later). You are made up of all four color energies and can change how you use them depending on the situation, but at your core, you really identify with one over the rest.
And it’s this dominant color energy that defines what’s important to you and how you like to be treated, kept informed, and, yes, told about bad news. So, I’m going to break them down for you and show you what that means for your most difficult conversations.
Fiery Red Energy
People who have dominant Fiery Red energy are those people who come into the office at 9 AM and have probably pissed a few people off by 9:05. They can seem task-focused, like to work fast, want results today (if not yesterday), and are not overly concerned about the people tasked with getting the work done. They’re demanding, purposeful, and determined—stand back when they’re on a roll!
When you’re breaking bad news to Fiery Red powerhouses, you can’t be wishy-washy. Don’t vacillate or prevaricate—you’re only getting on their nerves. Spit it out before they get bored, and make sure you get your facts straight. Give them the why, the what, and the when, and then leave them time to ask lots of questions—to which you’d better have the answers.
Sunshine Yellow Energy
You’ll know Sunshine Yellow energy when you see it—or hear it! These people are extroverted to a fault: They’re sociable, passionate, creative, full of ideas, and possibly a bit on the loud side. They love making sure people are on board with their latest crazy scheme, but beware—tomorrow may bring a bright new shiny idea to be picked up instead.
Breaking bad news to Sunshine Yellow colleagues means reframing the information—help them see the silver lining by painting them a big picture of their new, different future. Asking for their input is key; they’ll have dreams and schemes to add, and they’ll appreciate being involved in the process. Let them speak to think; if they have worries or questions, they’ll want you to know about it, so be patient, and let them get it all out.
Earth Green Energy
People who lead with Earth Green energy are the caring, sharing side of your team. These are likely to be the people who stay back late to help a struggling teammate; they make the time to connect with people, they know the name of everyone’s kids, and they’ve got empathy for all of your issues. In short, they’re all about the people, so forget process, strategy, and jargon when you’re talking to them.
However, in the face of bad news or change, Earth Green energy can become stubborn and drag their heels so much they practically go into reverse. Bad news for them has to come gently and be delivered personally. You’ll need to show them how it’s going to affect them and those around them and demonstrate the support you’re willing to offer. Let them share their worries, and be prepared to be patient; they’ll need a lot of reassurance that it’s all going to be OK in the end.
Cool Blue Energy
Cool Blue energy is all about the logic; they need the facts, they need the figures, and they need time to do a rigorous analysis of any data you send them (including the lunch menu, joke emails, and random pictures of cats dressed as superheroes). People who lead with Cool Blue energy are likely to come off as pretty formal, intensely analytical, and only willing to make a change if it’s backed up by thorough research.
To someone with a lot of Cool Blue energy, bad news will typically be followed by a long silence, then a request for some thinking time, then an email the next day containing the 34 questions they’ve thought of overnight. Cool Blue people don’t like to be ambushed, so give them the news, and then give them space. If there is solid logic behind the bad news you’re delivering, they’ll come around with time—but if not, you’d better be prepared for an onslaught of questions about your reasoning. So get your facts straight, gather your evidence, present it to them, then leave them to piece it all together.
At the end of the day, bad news can’t be transformed into good news—it can, however, be bad news, broken in a way that’s respectful, that’s personal, and that takes account of how each of your colleagues likes to be treated. And that’s really all that anyone can ask.