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Don’t Blame the Messenger

Your organization’s upper leadership has just announced a new initiative that you’ll be responsible for sharing with—or “cascading” down to—your team. While your peers in management are excited about the upcoming change, you’re already dreading making the announcement to your team, because you know the employees you supervise won’t like it (or may not understand it, or won’t have time to implement it, or will assume it’s a waste of time, or … well, you get the idea). The point is there’s a lot of griping and pushback in your future.


Worse, you also may not understand or agree with the directive you’ve received. Too often, middle managers feel pulled between senior leaders (who expect them to execute their directives) and their teams (who count on managers to look out for them). It’s a tough position to be in.


That’s the bad news. The good news is that you’re not just a mouthpiece for your leadership. You’re a translator who has the ability—really, the responsibility—to ensure that first you understand the message, and second, that you convey it clearly and effectively to your team. The stakes are high. Through what you say and what you don’t say, you can drive employee buy-in, engagement and productivity—or not.

Repeating back what you’ve heard opens the door for effective two-way communication and is a great tool for nipping misunderstandings in the bud.

Even if you are not fully on board with an initiative, resist the temptation to throw the organization or administration under the bus. Doing so will allow dissent, cynicism and frustration to proliferate. The long-term impact of those attitudes can be much more pervasive than that of unclear instructions.


Below are five best practices that can help you understand, translate and deliver messages you and your team might not want to hear.

1. Seek to understand. 

Go to the decision-makers in your organization if you need more information about a directive. Express your support for the company and state your need for further explanation. Word your questions in a way that won’t make leaders feel defensive, and try to walk away understanding the what, why, how and who so your translation to your employees will be understood. A few questions you may want to ask:

  • “How can I explain this to employees who might not like the idea?” (You—and your leaders—should be prepared for any pushback you might receive.)
  • “What is the rationale behind this decision? How will it help my team/our department/the organization?” (Employees are more receptive if you can communicate what’s in it for them.) 
  • “What are our first steps and milestones so we can measure our progress?” (Employees are easily overwhelmed when a goal seems too big. While senior leaders may be focused on the ultimate payoff, your team’s motivation and outlook will probably be more strongly tied to completing tangible, short-term tasks.)
  • “How will we know when we are successful?” (Ensure that you’re able to paint a clear picture so your team will know when they’ve reached the desired target.)
  • “What three key points should I make when communicating this message to employees?” (You may have to convey the message in a brief huddle, so ask for help getting to the meat of the message.)

2. Don’t be afraid to disagree—respectfully.

Always start by assuming good intent: that your leaders have a genuine desire for success, and that this new initiative has a valid purpose. Then ask the decision-makers if they would be open to hearing your feedback—for example, say, “May I point out some concerns about how this may impact my department?”

Stick to facts and observations, and avoid drama and judgment. Be mindful of your emotions—they’re human and normal, but you don’t want them to overshadow your message. Consider your timing, your state of mind, the setting and the current situation for the decision-maker with whom you disagree. For example, stopping this person on their way to the parking lot or pulling them aside before a big meeting isn’t likely to garner their full attention or empathy.

3. Practice active listening. 

Repeating back what you’ve heard opens the door for effective two-way communication and is a great tool for nipping misunderstandings in the bud. After listening to the message you are expected to carry, say, “Here is what I understood from you … [summarize message]. Do I have it right?” 

By asking for a partnership instead of passing the buck, you are showing you are willing to accept accountability even when it’s difficult.

Doing this lets others know you are genuinely seeking to understand their message before sharing your concerns about it. Leaders will then be more likely to listen to your feedback and to take it seriously. Ask your employees to practice this same technique when you meet with them.

4. Ask for help.

You may feel that despite your best efforts to understand and convey a directive, you won’t be able to deliver it in a way that your team will understand or accept. Instead of forging ahead regardless and potentially compounding a fraught situation, ask for help.

This is an opportunity to build trust between you, your team and management. Try saying, “I want to have credibility in transmitting this message, but it’s hard for me to accept it myself. Can you help me do this?” By asking for a partnership instead of passing the buck, you are showing you are willing to accept accountability even when it’s difficult.

5. Don’t throw anyone under the bus. 

Despite your best attempts to understand, you may still find yourself thinking, “If I were in charge, I’d be doing things differently.” Don’t let thoughts like these show in your words, body language or actions.

Remember, you are a part of the organization’s leadership, too. It’s your responsibility to maintain your own—and your organization’s—integrity. Blaming others will only fuel a destructive “us versus them” mentality. You might say something like, “I hear your concerns, and I have brought them to senior leadership. In the end, this decision is being made for the good of the organization. While not everyone is happy about it, I am committed to supporting it, and I need your commitment too.”

When communicating a difficult message, attitudes can play as big a role as the message itself. Your willingness to give your all to an unpopular initiative can inspire your team to do the same. And if your team and senior management see you striving to understand and deliver this communication in good faith, they will come to regard you not just as a leader in name, but a leader in character as well.

Jo Anne Preston is the workforce and organizational development senior manager at the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, and she is the author of Lead the Way in Five Minutes a Day: Sparking High Performance in Yourself and Your Team (ACHE Management Series, 2021).


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