How Leaders Can Communicate Tough Messages in their Organisation

By Heather Campbell

No leader, business owner or HR director likes having difficult conversations with employees.

But business is not always paired with ‘highs’ and growth, and unfortunately, communicating tough messages is an inevitable part of being a leader in any organisation.

When tough messages need to be shared, the internal response is dependent upon how well the message is communicated.

At CommsMasters, we’ve helped empower leaders across many types of industries to make these conversations easier, and given them the tools they need to succeed.

By using the tactics outlined below, you can be sure that you are communicating as efficiently and effectively as possible with your team.

Let’s take a look at some of these best practices:

Be Completely Honest

Working with employees during a difficult time is not the right environment to put a spin on messages.

Your employees are smart, competent, carefully chosen individuals who will most likely see through any holes in your communication.

Your goal should never be to cast any illusions on tough messages, as this will add complication and unnecessary levels of extra details that need to be managed.

Instead, work at being as transparent as possible. Empathise with the severity of the situation, and be honest with the details that are available.

This is not the opportunity to spin an already difficult message into one that additionally delivers blamefalse hope, or any other possible interpretations.

You are here to speak with your employees directly as a leader – and your task is to be upfront with them on this tough message, so they can react in a fair way.

Give time and space for a response

When communicate tough messages to individuals or to a group, you must give time and space for a response.

Whether it’s questions from the group about next steps, requests for feedback, or even the ability to ask for reassurance – you need to give your team adequate opportunity to respond and ensure these questions get answered.

Another way to look at tough situations is to remember that your organisation has invested time, money, and trust into your employees. Equally, your employees have invested their time, trust, and careers into your organisation.

In this sense, both groups are working together and relying on each other – and in this relationship, both sides should have the ability to get clarification on each other’s actions, decisions and new directions.

Allow expression of emotion

Do not be afraid of an emotional reaction; this is a normal part of bad news, disappointments, and tough messages.

If your team members are comfortable enough to share their feelings, then appreciate that they feel safe in their environment and let them have a moment to collect themselves.

Try not to suppress such an expression if it occurs. If you are delivering a difficult message to a team member, and they appear angry or begin to cry, it is important to accept this and allow them the space to do so.

Processing emotions is a natural part of taking on a tough message, and should be handled as professionally as possible.

And remember, it is not unprofessional to invest your time and trust into an organisation – therefore an expression of emotion (to some degree) speaks highly of your employee’s opinions of your company.

Appreciate this for what it is: a moment of pure honesty – and from this moment, move the conversation to an open and safe environment.

Be clear and precise in the communication

There can be no room for mixed messages.

When communicating a message that concerns one or several employees, the communication needs to be clear, precise, and to the point. It needs to explain the change, the impact, and the reasoning for this change if available.

In certain situations, it may be necessary to leave some details out of the communication. You may not be able to share specific points for legal reasons, for example. At these times, it’s important to explain the limitations to the team.

Leave no grey areas or space for false hope

When communicating tough messages to your team, it’s important to not leave grey areas where there could be room for people to push boundaries. If there are boundaries that employees can push for false hope, there is actually more damage to be undone in the end.

If it’s a tough message, it’s important that there are no grey areas that can be misinterpreted. A good leader should be very clear what the choices are, and where there are no choices available.

And be clear with expectations on how people should continue their day-to-day work (if applicable).

Clarity around expectations and boundaries will ultimately make things easier for everyone.


The quality of your communication is very important when relaying tough messages throughout your organisation.

However, if you can adopt the points below during a time when tough communication needs to be administered, you can ensure your employees are at the very least informed, have realistic expectations, and have had an opportunity to gain clarification:

  • Be completely honest
  • Give time and space for a response
  • Allow expression of emotion
  • Be clear and precise in the communication
  • Leave no grey areas or space for false hope

As a result, your organisation will build trust across your employees and process future change with much more agility and strength.

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