How to Deliver Bad News to Your Boss

I had a previous boss 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 other members of our law firm urged him to get some professional help in order to keep the rest of the staff from quitting. When he was caught off guard, nothing seemed to stem the tide of his anger.

When this situation occurs, it is never easy. Most of the time we would rather jump off a cliff than face the prospect of giving bad news to a superior. Nevertheless, there are a number of steps that you can take to improve the, “Bad news, Boss” scenario. Hopefully you will find these useful in addressing a negative situation.

1. Don’t wait. Sometimes we wait to avoid having to tell someone that we did not get the results that we wanted. And yet, giving a decision-maker the much needed information necessary to take immediate steps to remedy the current situation is important. Get the information to them quickly to minimize damage.

2. Select the time and place. Find a time where you can give the necessary feedback without interruption. You don’t want to offer bad news just as the individual is leaving at the end of the day. If you know that the first two hours of the day are the most hectic for this individual, then approach as soon as things slow down a bit, making sure you have the time needed to give feedback and discuss pertinent issues.

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

4. Be simple, direct and straightforward. There is nothing wrong with stating, “I have some bad news. Is now a good time to discuss it?” It is also helpful to tell the recipient of your message how long you will need. Don’t downplay the importance of your message or make light of the situation. Doing so may call into doubt your competence or credibility in this situation. Be serious and you will be taken seriously.

5. Take responsibility. If you own the entire outcome and you are responsible, then take ownership for the results. It might sound like this: “I am not getting the results that I thought I would get.” Notice that such a statement readily states that the person is responsible. There is no blaming others for the lack of results.

6. Remain calm. If your boss becomes emotional, keep your emotions in check. If you meet his or her emotion with an emotional reaction of your own, then the entire conversation will spiral hopelessly out of control. Remember that conversations that are highly emotional are usually irrational. If your manager continues to be emotional, try asking a number of questions to restore rationality to the interaction.

If their emotion continues to rule the conversation, you might offer them the alternative for discussing this topic at a later time. You might say, “I can see this information is upsetting. Would it be better to discuss this later?”

7. Manage your delivery. Let your overall demeanor reflect your confidence. Use a positive tone in how you speak. Look the person in the eye, stand erect and deliver your message. Thinking through the conversation ahead of time and planning for any possible questions will help you more easily 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. Recognize that some leaders will immediately want your analysis of the situation while others will only want the bottom line. Assess your audience and present only what they ask for. A good rule of thumb is to not share the details unless you are asked. But you must be prepared to offer and explain whatever they request.

9. Explore context. Ask your leader if she or he is familiar with the situation. Some leaders operate at such a high level that they might not have a good grasp on the details of a situation. Consequently, they can only render judgment based on what they know. Take the time to 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, from your perspective, with supporting detail or evidence.

10. Lose the dramatics. Do not overly dramatize what has happened. Such drama might sound like this, “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 do not make you look very professional. Stick to the facts, your explanation of what happened, and the ensuing outcome.

Do not blame others for whatever they did or didn’t do. The only time you should mention others is when you want to praise someone. No drama!

11. Prepare solutions. At the same time that you give the bad news, you should come prepared to offer solutions to the current challenge. The operative word is “solutions.” You might say at this point in the conversation, “After thinking through the situation, I have identified a number of solutions that we could use. 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 may take to implement and what the possible and logical outcomes will be.

12. Document solutions. If you decide on a course of action, be sure that you summarize and record the details of the solution. This is a critical step for proper execution. Be as detailed as you need to be and don’t assume anything. If you need to ask questions, then do so. 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, then own it by apologizing. Don’t make your apology long or drawn out. It should be precise and concise, then move on. Only apologize for your part or role in the situation. Many times things don’t work out because of a number of unforeseen circumstances. Own your part and that is all. You might also share briefly what you learned from the situation.

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

By John R. Stoker