We’ve come to the time of the year when the daily news digests from the higher ed trade publications, think tanks and associations are filled with stories of colleges and universities with budget shortfalls that necessitate dramatic change. And it feels this year like there are more institutions announcing layoffs and shifts in programmatic offerings than in the past two or three years.
I’ve read the clips and the language from the institutions and been startled by the matter-of-fact approach some have taken. The situations are serious and need honesty, but there’s nothing wrong with balancing information about big changes with compassion and humanity.
This three-year-old Forbes piece by Robert Bies, a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, is a perfect primer for delivering bad news. Below are his Ten Commandments for sharing and my thoughts on their application in higher education budget season:
Thou shall never surprise. Do everything you can to communicate the overall health of the institution in good times and bad. If the news is bad, you will inevitably receive feedback that members of the community were blindsided. Minimize the number who can say that by sharing information frequently and publicly. Consider holding financial office hours in between campus updates and ask the same from other campus officers.
 Thou shall never delay. It takes more than a few months for institutions to find themselves in financially precarious situations. The potential for trouble should be shared when it is a remote possibility so the wisdom of the campus community can be tapped and shared governance can be effectively employed. Waiting until the last minute to ask for input means the number of options, ability for collegiality and creativity of solutions will be limited.
Thou shall never hide the facts. Tell the truth—that’s what you get paid to do. Half-truths will be discovered and not telling the truth is never a good idea. Conversely, address mistruths and falsehoods as quickly as possible; not addressing them may be seen as their confirmation.
Thou shall always put it in writing. I’m a big fan of sharing one-page summaries or top-line takeaways with enough detail and data to increase understanding of the situation and next steps. Narrowing complex concepts makes us carefully consider the words we use, which is exactly the right approach for campus updates.
Thou shall always justify. Facts, data and explanations are the only ways we can prove we are being transparent and our stage setting is truthful. We aren’t looking to make excuses, place blame or scapegoat—we are looking to create understanding and ask for participation from our campus community to find solutions.
Thou shall always look for the silver lining. I’m an optimist and sometimes a Pollyanna. This isn’t time for either of those traits. So, consider this commandment as permission to pair the tough news with a positive direction forward. This is where the campus community needs to see and hear their leader move the institution forward.
Thou shall always bring solutions. Campus leaders have been hired to lead and this is the exact moment they define the success of their careers. Financial talks should include a clear outline of the fiscal reality and a strategic plan forward that corrects the problems of the past.
Thou shall always remember your multiple audiences. Differentiate your messaging for each audience by answering, from their perspective, “What does this mean for me?”
Thou shall always follow up and follow through. You’ve shared a path forward, now live it. Your campus will be expecting continued bold leadership and you need to deliver. Any promises you make must come to fruition This is your time to prove you are trustworthy and worthy of them placing their professional future in your hands.
Thou shall always treat people with respect and dignity. Treating others with the Golden Rule should always be modus operandi, but never more so when people feel financially, personally and professionally vulnerable. Choose your words carefully and then re-read them again while thinking of their impact on your team.