bad news

By Suzi McAlpine, SmartBrief

Not gonna lie. Delivering bad news to your boss ain’t fun.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a CEO delivering a “not-so-hot” revised forecast to the Board, or a project manager telling your boss that the project launch date is delayed….yet again.

Moments like these will never be the most pleasant experiences of your professional life. Your boss may well spit the dummy. They may not thank you graciously for bringing this ‘problem’ to their attention.

But it is possible to deliver bad news to your boss with some degree of aplomb and skill. But how do you do that while increasing your chances of coming out the other side looking professional and competent?

The next time you’re the bearer of bad news, try these tips to do it well:

1. Front up, fess up, and don’t fall prey to procrastination

If you want to put your head in the sand and make like an ostrich, this is your cue to do the opposite.

Delaying the inevitable merely delays the necessary. It may even make it worse.  It will be less pretty if they find out from someone else. Bad news can become terrible news by not informing your boss in a timely manner.

So as soon as you become aware that things aren’t where they should be, start forming your initial communication to your manager.

At the same time…

2. Do take time to plan your communication and your potential solutions to ‘said pickle’

Make sure you’ve put some thought into the following:

  • What exactly is the problem? Outline the impacts, implications, and facts. Positioning the problem concisely and effectively helps you frame up the conversation.

  • When is the best time to deliver this? Grabbing her as she’s about to go into a high-stress customer meeting, or just before the Board meeting might not be the best timing. Giving thought to time of day and place might seem like a small detail, but it’s an important detail nonetheless.

  • Consider how you can give them a ‘pre-warning’ or heads up. One of my most talented team members would give me a heads up via a short email and ask for a phone call to discuss. From this, I was able to glean it wasn’t great news, which helped me prepare myself. It meant I wasn’t blindsided and could be more emotionally ready to receive the bad news.

3. Fall on your sword

Take accountability. Accepting responsibility is a crucial part of being a good leader. If it’s happened on your watch, don’t throw others (especially your team) under the bus.

4. Be solutions focused

No leader I’ve met likes hearing a problem without at least some thought going into a potential way forward. So come up with potential solutions, options for next steps, and the implications, risks, and benefits of each.

Avoid binary solutions and broaden the options to at least three. In their book Decisive Chip Heath and Dan Heath outline research that widening your options beyond binary decisions improves decision-making.

At the very least, outline key learnings.

5. Put yourself in their shoes

The way your boss likes to be communicated with may be different to you. Are they all about the bottom line or end result and like short, sharp, to-the-point comms? Or do they like to know about process and have the details? Are they usually concerned more with people or the task?  Communicate in a way that meets them where they are.

This is also a good reason why it’s always worthwhile understanding the priorities of your immediate leaders and their leaders!

6. Build in regular and early reporting mechanisms

This is a tip to adopt before the proverbial hits the fan. Create reporting tools for key success factors that will give you early signals when things are going off track.

By doing this, you’ll be more likely to course correct before things turn majorly pear shaped. If something’s already gone off-track, be sure to do this before you move on with the project.

7. Put it in perspective

Like me, you may have a tendency to catastrophise. There have been occurrences in my professional life which, at the time, I thought would be my career death knell. They weren’t. In fact, they offered up more learning than my successes.

Being the bearer of bad news may not be the most pleasant part of your leadership experiences. But by adopting these guidelines, you can come out the other side a wiser and more competent leader. You never know – you may even gain more respect from your boss than before you delivered the bad news.


About LRPC’s Monday Morning Minute

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) Monday Morning Minute is crafted to provide decision-makers with important information about the economy, investments and corporate retirement plans in a format that allows a reader to consume the information in less than 60 seconds. As an independent, objective investment adviser, LRPC has access to many sources of research and shares the best and most relevant information with its readers each week.

About Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based independent, objective Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) providing investment advisory, fiduciary compliance, employee education, provider management and plan design services to employer retirement plan sponsors. The firm specializes in sustainable investment strategies for retirement plans that incorporate Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) factors and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) elements. LRPC currently has contracts in place to provide consulting services on more than a half billion dollars in plan assets. For more information, please contact Robert C. Lawton at (414) 828-4015 or or visit the firm’s website at Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser.

Important Disclosures

This information was developed as a general guide to educate plan sponsors and is not intended as authoritative guidance, tax, legal or investment advice. Each plan has unique requirements and you should consult your attorney or tax adviser for guidance on your specific situation. In no way does Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC assure that, by using the information provided, a plan sponsor will be in compliance with ERISA regulations. Investors should carefully consider investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. The statements in this publication are the opinions and beliefs of the commentator expressed when the commentary was made and are not intended to represent that person’s opinions and beliefs at any other time. The commentary does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC offers no tax, legal or accounting advice and any advice contained herein is not specific to any individual, entity or retirement plan, but rather general in nature and, therefore, should not be relied upon for specific investment situations. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser and accepts clients outside of Wisconsin based upon applicable state registration regulations and the “de minimus” exception.