Emotional Safety: How to Make It OK For Employees to Share Bad News

Employee giving bad news to her bossNo one likes to be the bearer of bad news. But just because problems don’t get discussed openly, doesn’t mean problems don’t exist. This is especially true in the workplace where employees might be afraid of giving their boss bad news. Problems that don’t get discussed can’t be addressed.

According to Deborah Jeffries, Vice President for HR Answers, if employees don’t feel safe enough to share when something is going wrong, businesses run the risk of small issues snowballing into unmanageable messes. Simply put, “if we don’t acknowledge something, we can’t change it or fix it.” 

In October 2021, Deborah presented, Building Emotional Safety in the Workplace, as part of TERRA’s HR Hotspot webcast series. In this enlightening webinar, Deborah claimed that when employees feel psychologically safe at work, companies see many benefits, including a reduction in turnover and safety incidents, and an increase in productivity and profitability. 

Among the benefits of psychological safety, Deborah explained that employees who feel comfortable are much more likely to let their manager know about problems right away, giving them a chance to react and resolve issues more quickly.

So how can you make your employees feel safe enough to share bad news with you? 

Here are four tips to help make employees comfortable sharing bad news: 

  1. Set the tone as a leader.
  2. Value honesty.
  3. Embrace healthy conflict. 
  4. Facilitate everyone speaking up.

In this article, we’ll walk through each tip and explain how employers can build a psychologically safe workplace culture in which employees feel comfortable bringing up difficult topics. 

Empowering employees to share bad news:

1. Set the tone as a leader.

As a leader, everything starts with you. Your behavior sets the standard for what is considered acceptable conduct in your team. 

If you want your employees to be vulnerable enough to share their failures with you, Deborah suggests setting an example. Share bad news when it comes up. And share stories and examples of when you’ve had to learn things the hard way. A lot of growth and learning comes from setbacks but not if we don’t take the learning opportunity.

Deborah puts it simply: “Don’t be afraid to acknowledge mistakes in front of your team. (…) Vulnerability creates trust. It invites vulnerability in return.” After all, she adds, people are more willing to own up to mistakes if they know you’ve made some yourself.

You’ll also benefit from conveying to your team that you aren’t afraid to take (responsible) risks and change your mind when things don’t work out the way you’d hoped. Show not only what’s working, but what isn’t working as well. This will encourage your employees to take initiative — and to communicate openly and without fear if that initiative doesn’t pay off. 

Progress isn’t always linear and a lot of growth and learning comes from setbacks and challenges. The key is to address the facts head-on and seize the opportunity to learn.

2. Value honesty.

If you want your staff to let you know when things go wrong, one of the most important things you can do is to encourage honesty at every turn.

First, make sure you react well when people come to you with concerns, problems or bad news. Try showing appreciation for their honesty and let them know you appreciate it when they come to you with issues. 

Model that behavior in team meetings as well, and show sincere appreciation for people’s input. If employees feel like you value their opinion, they’re more likely to come to you in the future. On the other hand, if they feel like you shut down their concerns or react poorly, they’ll be more inclined to keep issues to themselves.

You don’t have to pretend to always like what you hear. Nor do you have to let big mistakes go. But instead, try to reserve your judgement and react with appreciation for the open communication. Encourage people to come to you with small issues, before they turn into big ones.

Deborah suggests that rather than taking punitive measures, you “establish norms for how failure is handled.” To encourage honesty, try to frame failure as a chance to grow, and encourage your team to be open about what they learned from their attempt. If you establish mistakes, not as something to be afraid of, but as something to learn from, team members are more likely to be honest about them. 

3. Embrace healthy conflict.

Being able to share bad news with each other in a healthy way also goes with being able to openly disagree. The most productive teams aren’t afraid of conflict. Instead, they’ve learned to harness its value. Differences in opinions, when navigated well, can lead to better decisions and more unity in the team.

Ask yourself, are your employees comfortable disagreeing with each other? And more importantly, are they comfortable disagreeing with you? Are they sharing their opinions in meaningful, productive ways? Is there a negative consequence to speaking up and sharing alternate viewpoints or perspectives? If not, you’ll want to spend extra time making sure that the answer changes. 

To make your team comfortable with conflict, start by framing feedback in a positive light. Show that you take feedback gracefully yourself. And assume the best of your staff. Acknowledge everyone’s concerns and opinions, even if you don’t agree. That will help make sure that whenever people voice their disagreement, they feel heard. 

More importantly, normalize conflict between team members. Help them see it as a way to identify and solve issues, not something to shy away from. After all, when people care about creating great outcomes, it’s natural for them to sometimes disagree on how the work should get done. 

Rather than look for constant agreement, teach your staff to navigate areas of disagreement without actually being disagreeable. Encourage them to lean into problem-solving, rather than accusing. In turn, they’re more likely to work together to come up with solutions, rather than work against each other.

And don’t be afraid to lean into conflict and make difficult decisions when needed. While compromise can be good, it’s not always the solution. Sometimes, meeting in the middle means coming up with an outcome that no one likes just to keep the peace. That can result in mediocrity, or unresolved feelings that could stunt your team’s growth.

4. Facilitate everyone speaking up.

If you want people to share bad news with you, it’s also important to give them easy opportunities to share. Establish a healthy setting for members to communicate negative results and concerns. And try to give multiple ways for employees to share their thoughts with you. 

For some employees, it’ll be as simple as giving them a platform such as team meetings, or letting them know you’re available to talk. However, a lot of people might not offer their opinion when unprompted. Instead they’re a lot more likely to speak up if you ask them what they think. 

Deborah emphasizes, “if some team members don’t usually speak up, find ways to bring them into the conversation. Make it less about shaming their silence and more about wanting to know what they think.” She adds that these individuals might not feel comfortable sharing in front of a whole team. That’s why having 1-1 time with them, in which they can share with you, can be very beneficial. 

You can also encourage sharing by checking in with your team members regularly. Openly ask for their opinion on initiatives, changes, and projects. Ask them if they have any concerns about the way their work is going. Make sure they have many opportunities to speak up with any issue they might have. 

Again, you don’t have to implement everyone’s feedback, all the time. But be open to hearing it. Some of it might be valuable. And your team members will greatly benefit from feeling heard and valued. 

Sample questions to ask your team: 

If you want to make extra sure your employees are comfortable sharing bad news with you, the best thing to do is to ask them directly. A good way to get that information is through a survey. (With answers on a six point scale.) 

Here are some sample survey questions Deborah shared in her webinar:

  1. If I saw something wrong at work, I would feel comfortable reporting it. 
  2. On my team, we are able to have discussions on difficult/uncomfortable topics. 
  3. If I make a mistake at work, it is not unfairly held against me. 
  4. I feel comfortable speaking up about problems/ issues in the workplace with my immediate manager

Remember, there are many benefits of creating a safe setting in which employees feel comfortable openly communicating bad news with you. Among other things, you will be able to react, plan, solve, and avoid repeating mistakes. 

Want more information on building a safe workplace for your team? Watch Deborah’s full webinar here:

And if you need some extra tips, don’t hesitate to look at our blog. We have many great articles related to a variety of HR topics: 

How TERRA Can Be a Resource 

TERRA Staffing Group is a leading staffing agency located in the Seattle-Puget Sound, Portland, Phoenix, and Denver metro areas. We work with many great companies across a variety of industries. 

Our monthly HR HotSpot webinars provide guidance, solutions, and best practices for HR professionals, managers and business leaders.

These free webcasts contain insight from industry experts on a wide variety of timely workplace topics. Subjects include: recruiting, attendance issues, talent acquisition and retention, diversity and inclusion, talent engagement, and more. 

If you find yourself needing staffing help, don’t hesitate to reach out to TERRA. Our expert team is eager to be a resource to you.

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