13 tips for delivering bad news to the boss

Your manager—or even your chief executive-has to know when a project has gone awry or a campaign has hit a roadblock. Try these approaches for clear, professional communication.

Got bad news for the boss?

I had a supervisor who would go off like a volcano anytime the results that we produced did not meet his expectations. He was so volatile in his reaction to bad news that members of our organization urged him to get professional help to keep the rest of the staff from quitting. When he was caught off guard, nothing seemed to stem his anger.

A situation like that is never easy. Most of the time we would rather jump off a cliff than give bad news to a superior. Nevertheless, there are steps you can take to ease the process—and the response:

1. Don’t wait. Sometimes we put off telling someone that we didn’t get the results we wanted. Yet giving a decision-maker the necessary information to take immediate steps to remedy the situation is important. Deliver it quickly to minimize damage.

2. Select the time and place. Find a time when you can give the necessary feedback without interruption. You don’t want to offer bad news just as the individual is leaving for the day. If you know that the first two hours are the most hectic for this individual, then approach as soon as things slow down, making sure you have enough time to give feedback and discuss pertinent issues. If a private office isn’t handy, find a conference room.

3. Keep your boss in the loop. If you have correctly planned a project and have been giving regular feedback about the state of the project, then if bad news occurs, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Providing regular updates and making the necessary changes will create some ownership on the part of your manager. This strategy helps you avoid the entire burden of any outcome as it occurs.

4. Be simple and straightforward. There is nothing wrong with saying: “I have some bad news. Is now a good time to discuss it?” It is also helpful to say how long you will need. Don’t downplay your message’s importance nor make light of the situation. Doing so may call into doubt your competence or credibility. Be serious, and you will be taken seriously.

5. Take responsibility. If you are responsible for the outcome, take ownership. It might sound like this: “I’m not getting the results I thought I would get.” Notice that you aren’t blaming others for the lack of results.

6. Remain calm. If your boss becomes emotional, keep your own emotions in check. If you match his or her emotion with a heightened reaction, the entire conversation could spiral out of control. Remember, highly emotional conversations are usually irrational. If your manager continues to be emotional, try asking questions to restore rationality. If emotion continues to rule the conversation, suggest revisiting the topic after a respite. You might say: “I can see this information is upsetting. Would it be better to discuss this later?”

7. Manage your delivery. Let your demeanor reflect your confidence. Use a positive tone, look the person in the eye, stand up straight, and deliver your message. Thinking through the conversation ahead of time and planning for any possible questions will help you navigate the situation.

8. Be prepared . Understand and analyze the events and why they occurred the way they did. Know the facts, details and evidence that will support your explanation and your opinion. Some leaders will want your analysis, whereas others will want the bottom line. Assess your audience, and present only what they ask for. A good rule is not to share details unless they request them, but to be prepared to explain whatever they ask about.

9. Explore context. Ask your leader whether she or he is familiar with the situation. Some leaders operate at such a high level that they might not have a good grasp of the details. Consequently, they can render judgment based only on what they know. Ask about their familiarity with the current challenge, and offer to explain the details and history of the project. Also, be prepared to explain why events occurred as they did, offering details or evidence.

10. Lose the dramatics. Do not overly dramatize what happened by saying something such as: “I am just so sorry that this has happened. I can’t really believe this has happened. This is so, so bad. I hope you will forgive me for this.” This is overkill, and such statements don’t make you look professional. Stick to the facts, your explanation of what happened and the outcome.

11. Prepare solutions. As you give the bad news, come prepared to offer solutions. Try saying: “After thinking through the situation, I have identified a few solutions we could try. Would you like to hear them?” Let them make the decision to hear your ideas. Some people would prefer to think things through before considering the options. Also, be prepared to share how long a solution might take to implement and what the possible outcomes would be.

12. Document solutions. If you decide on a course of action, summarize and record the details of the solution. This is crucial to proper execution. Be as detailed as necessary, and don’t assume anything. Ask questions as needed. It might sound something like this: “I will summarize what we both have agreed to do and get it to you today by 4 p.m. today. After receiving your approval, I’ll contact everyone who will be involved by close of business tomorrow. Then I’ll report our results within three days to share what progress we have made and any challenges that we may be having. Does that work for you?” This allows you to check your understanding and to clarify what you agreed to do.

13. Apologize if you are at fault. If you are at fault, apologize. Don’t draw your apology out. It should be precise and concise; then move on. Apologize only for your part or role in the situation. Many times things don’t work out because of unforeseen circumstances. Own your part and nothing more. You might also share briefly what you learned.

Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes preparing to give the boss bad news can fill us with dread. Taking a few moments to prepare and follow these steps will help you to hold the “bad news” conversation in a professional manner that will build your confidence and competence.

John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. Connect with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. A version of this article originally appeared on SmartBrief.

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