I'm not afriad of storms, for I'm learning how to sail my ship. -Louisa May Alcott -- leadership quote

Delivering Bad News

One of the hardest things about being a manager is when you have to tell others something they don’t want to hear.

It never gets easier to tell someone they’re not performing up to standards, or to tell a whole team that their project they’ve spent so many hours on is now going in a completely different direction. Talk to enough people who work in startups and almost everyone can share a story about deals that fall through, or clients that cancel mid-project.  This happened to me on a project I was leading; everyone had worked so hard, and suddenly they just had to stop, and I knew no one was going to be happy about it.

And while it’s always difficult to tell people something they don’t want to hear, I do have a few strategies that help me make sure the situation doesn’t get out of control that I have learned from my experience, and from the wise advice of my mentors.

I’ve talked before about thinking about your professional relationships as a series of Polaroids, and I think that’s especially helpful for understanding the best ways to handle bad news. It’s important to keep this in mind when you have bad news to deliver and *before* you have bad news to deliver too: that this bad situation is just a part of your whole career, and that the more positive interactions and trust you have established with your team, the better off you’ll be when a not-so-pretty Polaroid comes out.

Remember: roadblocks are part of any job, they will pop up throughout your career. So when you’re dealing with an ugly Polaroid, such as conveying the hard messages, thinking about it like a snapshot can help you find the best ways to handle it.


What are we looking at?

When you’re delivering bad news, think about the scene you’re capturing. You are taking a picture of a moment at your company – an employee is negatively impacting their team, a product has failed, budget cuts are forcing layoffs – and you’ve got to correctly focus the shot to get an accurate picture of it.

Do your best to present the situation exactly as it is. Be candid.
Go into the meeting or one-on-one with a clear picture of the problem and any background information that can give it context and clarity.

Glossing over bad news or being vague to avoid giving hard facts doesn’t make bad news easier to hear; it actually makes it worse. People still know it’s bad, but they don’t have all the information they need or feel that you’re not on their side. I always try to give as much information as I can and explain what impacts the news will have, even if I have to be blunt.

[ Tip: when a Polaroid first comes out of the camera, it’s blurry and not fully developed. Don’t share bad news until you have all the facts; if you spread bad news before it’s fully understood and you’re able to answer any questions about it, you can create unnecessary problems and gossip. ]

 I'm not afriad of storms, for I'm learning how to sail my ship. -Louisa May Alcott -- leadership quote

Who is looking at the picture?

It’s your job as a leader to present the picture to your team. However, it’s important not just to know how the information impacts you, but even more important to understand how it looks to your team – and what it will mean to them.

Take time before delivering bad news to consider your audience. How will they view this news?

  • Is the news going to come as a surprise?
  • Or are you bringing a problem to light that has been brewing for a while?
  • Will it impact their life outside the office?
  • Will this affect the day-to-day functions of their role?

If you can understand their concerns, you’ll do better delivering them a message that’s meaningful.

As a manager, your main concerns about a budget situation will most likely be different from those of an entry-level engineer on your team. Try to predict the big issues that will arise in the minds of the people you’re giving bad news to, and give them as complete a picture as you can to make sure they aren’t left wondering about anything crucial to them.

[ Tip: Some say delivering bad news is best on a Friday or at the end of the day, but I find that when people are at home over the weekend after getting bad news, their minds tend to gravitate to the worst. Giving them bad news at a time that allows them to continue on with their work – and see the sky isn’t actually falling – helps maintain stability. ]

Taking questions can be scary – especially since in the moments just after hearing bad news, people may be feeling angry or defensive. But it’s important for your own credibility and for assuaging the concerns of your team to take any questions and answer them honestly. Leave time for questions after your news, and don’t (or, at least, do your best not to) take negative reactions personally.


What if it becomes personal?

When they’re receiving bad news, people aren’t rational. It’s human nature and, while you can do a lot to prepare yourself to handle the situation, you may be surprised by a reaction – so be prepared with an exit strategy.

I once had to let someone go after pouring hours of my own time into helping them improve and get back on track. In our meeting when I gave him the news, he caught me completely off guard by turning the situation around and saying it was all my fault he had failed. After all the energy I had put into helping him, I was surprised and upset at his reaction. I could feel both of us getting worked up, and decided to end the conversation – with both of our tempers flaring, there was no way the conversation could be productive.

It’s good to have a third-party lined up for when a situation turns like that one did. I was able to take this employee to HR to finish the meeting, so I didn’t get tangled in a complicated emotional situation that wouldn’t have done either of us any good.


How does this photo fit with all the other pictures, past and future?

Framing how this situation fits in the big scheme of your business is important for delivering bad news. Your whole career is a series of snapshots, and this problem is just one part of the greater story of your team or company. Try to put the bad news in perspective, and look for opportunities to reframe it in a way that’s productive.

Present possibilities that will come out of the situation, and offer up strategies for bouncing back from a hard time. A negative review for a struggling employee is an opportunity for them to step up and show you what they’ve got, for example. A layoff can be devastating, but remind the employee that all the great work they produced while at the company will help them in their job search.

[ Tip: The underlying message should always be that your team, or the person, is valued. Acknowledge the positives, if they are there  – and remember, trying to spin a wholly bad situation into good news won’t make anyone feel better. ]

A lot of how your team will react to news depends on how you present it to them; as a leader, your demeanor will influence the way your team processes the information.

In the case of the project put on hold from the beginning of this post, I was able to find bright spots to help my team put the disappointment in perspective. For example, the project was only put on hold, not cancelled. I let them know their work wasn’t going to just be abandoned; we’ll be picking it up again at a set point down the road. I made a point of letting them know what an impact their work so far had made, and how positively it would impact the company in the future.

If you lay out facts with empathy (“I know how hard all of you have been working on this and how disappointing it is to have it changed in this way…”), you’ll be credible when you frame it in the big picture (“I believe you can take this setback and use what we’ve learned to do even better going forward”).


Strategies for Delivering Bad News

  • Make sure you have all the facts. Delivering knee-jerk bad news doesn’t do anyone any good, and prevents you from maintaining control of the situation. There will probably be questions, so make sure you have answers before you start.
  • Communicate it to the people who need to know it as soon as possible. Gossip spreads fast, so don’t sit on bad news hoping it might go away. Tell the people who will be directly affected first (if an employee is fired, tell the people who work closest with them; if a project is cancelled, tell the team leaders first) so they understand that you appreciate their importance in the situation.
  • Be candid. I place a lot of value in speaking honestly all the time. People know when someone’s softening the edges, and using vague language can give the impression you’re trying to pull one over on them. Be specific and truthful. You’ll get the best results when all your cards are on the table.
  • Consider your audience. Seeing bad news from your team or employee’s perspective is essential for delivering it in a way that will be productive, not destructive. Your delivery will inform their reaction, so stay calm and take the situation seriously – as a leader, your presentation matters.
  • Don’t fight the silences. Sometimes being quiet is the best way to handle the moments after delivering bad news. People often need a moment to let the information soak in, and respecting that shows empathy and allows them to process the news completely. It can be hard to resist the urge to keep talking and barrel through the meeting, but you’ll do better to give them time to think.
  • Remember legality. If you’re doing layoffs or firing someone, you do have to keep in mind certain legal issues. While it’s important to be empathetic, be careful of treading into territory that could get you in trouble if the employee were to sue the company. Example: if they say their boss has always had it out for them, do not agree. Find a neutral way to respond and encourage.

How have you dealt with delivering bad news? Have you gotten bad news at work and wished your leadership handled it differently?

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