How to Tell Your Boss Bad News (in 5 easy steps)

Sweaty palms, queasy stomach, difficulty breathing, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of dread. Is it the flu? A bad blind date? Tax season? Worse! These are the tell-tale signs of someone who just realized they have to deliver bad news to their boss.

Historically, fear was an appropriate reaction to being chosen as the bearer of bad news. In far less technologically advanced times, reports between warring factions were hand-delivered. When leaders received news they didn’t like, they had a propensity for killing the poor sap carrying the enemy’s message.

Though the phrase “off with his head” is rarely heard echoing through the halls of the modern day corporation, project managers, software developers, and just about any one responsible for managing schedules, resources, and budgets, knows bearing unwelcome tidings is still a harrowing experience.

Red-flag waving emissaries face the inevitable trauma of being shunned by the recipients of their negative messages. Delivering bad news means potentially suffering the consequences of being the least popular person in the room.

Even more terrible than enduring the misdirected wrath of an outraged audience, is withstanding rightfully placed well-earned ire. Unlike the envoys of old who were blameless lackeys for the powers that be, today, the messenger is often partially or fully responsible for the situation. Facing the music of personal fallibility is like a slow dance with Kate Gosselin; awkward, unpleasant, and at times inflammatory.

Delivering bad news is a distasteful task no matter how you slice it. It’s no wonder people tend to put off the dirty deed until the last possible moment. This delay exasperates the situation turning the mild toothache into a full-blown root canal.

Fortunately, there are ways to make delivering bad news far less painful.

Now Beats Later Every Time

Share bad news with those who need to hear it as soon as possible. There are many excuses to be made for delaying the inevitable, but they all boil down to stall tactics in the hope that the situation will improve over time. Chances are it’s not going to get any better than it is right now. Besides, if you deliver bad news that turns out to be unwarranted, you shrug your shoulders and say “Guess it wasn’t as bad as we thought.” If you wait and circumstances get out of control, be prepared to explain to an angry mob why you didn’t come forth with vital information sooner.

The Right Words, The Right Way

The flight or fight reaction to the task of delivering bad news can tongue-tie even the most eloquent speakers. Instinct starts to win out over intellect. Take a deep breath. Slow down long enough to organize the message. Consider the specific needs of each person or group who will be hearing the information. Tailor both the format and wording of the message to match the expectations of the recipients. For example, some people require only a verbal synopsis, others need to read in order to process information, and there are those who prefer images to words. Communicate only what is most important and relevant. Cut out the “fluff” and be sure to logically sequence the information. Provide the basics and give the audience the opportunity to mine for the details as they see fit.

Location, Location, Location

Bad news and bad timing seem to go hand in hand. Not only do people delay delivery, they seem to choose the worst time and place to share the information. Jumping your boss in the hallway on her way to a meeting and saying “Hey, do you have a minute?” seems like an obvious no-no. Yet, these types of spontaneous Kamikaze tactics happen again and again. When delivering bad news, schedule the earliest possible time with the audience. Select an appropriate location. Use an agenda to let people know and prepare for the nature of the discussion.

Present Options

As dispassionately as possible, lay out the facts of the situation and offer well-thought out options.

While developing an Influence without Authority program for a client, the Director of a team of senior project engineers explained that not only did his people tend to put off sharing bad news, they would come to him with only the problem expecting him have all the answers. What he told us was that his project managers would have more credibility and trust with him if they presented issues early and came prepared with possible solutions. He felt that the more time they had to evaluate the options, the more likely they would be to come up with an optimal solution for any given situation.

Avoid the Blame Game

Throwing someone else under the bus or falling on your sword are fruitless guilt-ridden distractions. Remain focused on the important issues and direct people’s energy toward finding solutions.

What are some other good ways to deliver bad news?

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5 Comments

Filed under Business, How To, Influence, Leadership

5 responses to “How to Tell Your Boss Bad News (in 5 easy steps)

  1. I usually don’t post on Blogs but ya forced me to, great info.. excellent! … I’ll bookmark your site.

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