The Art of Delivering Bad News Well

05.06.2020 |

Episode #5 of the course Managing your manager by Jordan Thibodeau and Joe Ternasky


“Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.” —Colin Powell


Welcome back!

Like it or not, you will have to break bad news to your manager someday. In our last lesson, we talked about how to avoid performance review surprises. This lesson will focus on how to deliver bad news to your manager.


Delivering Bad News Is Unavoidable

From uncomfortable hiccups to absolute trainwrecks, it goes without saying that your manager won’t enjoy being briefed about bad news. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be informed. The main hurdle to overcome when delivering bad news is the conflict your boss will feel between needing to be kept up to date and desiring to be given only good news.


The Problems with Hiding Bad News

You may try to put out small fires yourself in the belief that chaos will ensue if any undesirable information reaches your manager. However, trying to hide bad news from your manager is always a bad idea. Here are some potential pitfalls:

Catching your manager off guard. What if some major crisis is heading your manager’s way? Would it be wise for you to try to hide the impending crisis and solve it your own way, involving your manager only when it’s absolutely necessary? No. Being the bearer of bad news is never going to get easier; but the way you convey negative information can make a huge difference.

Wasting precious time. Your bad news may be quickly solvable by your manager. But by hiding the bad news, you end up letting the problem fester, costing the company valuable time and resources. Plus, let’s not forget that it’s causing you mental anguish.

Someone will find out. Eventually your bad news will reach your manager, and if you are hiding it, the respect your manager has for you will lessen. The advantage of sharing bad news with your manager is it allows you to control the narrative of the situation and provide your manager with options that could possibly solve the problem.


How to Triage a Bad Situation

In our Highbrow course “Bouncing back from failure,” one of our lessons focuses on the tools you can use to deal with the emotions caused by failure. As soon as we are in a good emotional spot, then we are ready to begin triaging the failure. The following are steps you can take to help you triage a bad situation:

Step 1. Let your emotions cool. In the midst of a bad situation, it’s very easy to become emotional. You may need to briefly walk away from the situation to ensure you don’t make it worse. Taking a short break, counting to ten, or going for a walk are all great techniques to help you recollect yourself. Or, if you feel that you really need to write an email responding to the situation now, open up a Google document and write out an emotional response that lets your feelings flow. Then take a break, read the doc, and promptly delete it so you can get that negativity out of your mind.

Step 2. Assess the situation. While assessing the situation is important, you must make this decision as soon as possible. You never want something small to escalate into a monumental issue because you took too long to act. The first step is to assess the situation thoroughly and collect all of the facts. Then ask yourself (or the parties involved) these questions:

a. What happened?

Example: The contract we were supposed to close was rejected by our client.

b. When did it happen?

Example: The customer notified us of this yesterday at 4pm.

c. How did it happen?

Example: The customer called us and spoke to our sales team.

d. Why did it happen?

Example: The customer mentioned that they are thinking about using one of our competitors because they have a feature set that’s superior to ours.

e. What are some feasible solutions?

Example: While we can’t come up with the features the customer wants, maybe we can trade on price, delivery, or customer service guarantees.

Step 3. Brainstorm solutions. Can you do something that will fix the problem? If not, can you provide a possible fix that will require your manager’s help? Try to bring a potential solution (or several) to your manager. Remember, your manager already has multiple tasks and responsibilities to attend to and could defer to you for a solution.

Step 4. Determine when to notify your manager. Figure out if your manager must know about the problem immediately, or if it would make sense for you to wait and first gather data on the scope of the problem.

Step 5. Reach out to your manager. Provide your manager with some solutions to fix the problem while you explain what happened. This shows that you have made an effort to solve the problem yourself. If there’s anything you need from your manager before pursuing a solution, be sure to call that out. Once your manager has made a decision on what to do, it’s time to communicate their decision to the other parties involved and solve the issue.

Once you have followed the above steps, reflect on what you learned from this process so you can prevent yourself from running into the same problem again. If you do run into similar problems in the future, now you’ll already know how to troubleshoot them.


To Do

Complete the “Communicating Bad News” section of your Managing Your Manager Journal.

In our next lesson, we will explain how to find your key partners at work.

Jordan and Joe

Managing Your Manager Teachers


Recommended book

Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson


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