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:
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
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.
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
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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.
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.
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?"
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.
. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Connect with him on
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