A hard job made easy: 5 tips for delivering bad news to your boss

by | Jul 15, 2020 | Public Relations

No one likes to get bad news and, more importantly, no one likes to give bad news, especially to their boss. In the military, like business, no one likes to be surprised by bad news and no one like to deliver bad news. In the COVID-19 business world, bad news comes too often. Delivering bad news in an effective, understanding, and prepared manner is fast becoming an essential business skill.

Delivering bad news to your boss is a sign of being a great business leader and a solid leader in both good times and bad. Candor, trust, timeliness, and honesty are all signs of a great leader. There is no better test of your leadership qualities than being able to deliver bad news. Follow these tips to deliver bad or unwelcome news in a way that is professional.

Understand your boss’s—& your boss’s boss—priorities

Many times, bad news or off-goal business results surprising business leaders comes from not-understanding the priorities of your immediate and next higher-level business leader. Remember that adage of military planning: know the mission of your leaders one and two levels up? The same goes for the business and the civilian world.  If you know what is vitally important to your leaders, then the minute anything looks amiss to achieving those goals, you can reach out with information, context, and a revised plan to put their goals back on track. The bottom line: understand the priorities of your immediate and next higher leaders.

Have a regular & standardized way to report on business priorities

Things seldom go wrong in business from a “perfect” or “on plan” state to a situation of pure disaster.  Rather, individuals tend to lose focus on checking on priorities in a consistent manner. Then, when they revisit their priorities and the project status, they are surprised by a lack of progress or in a situation that has deteriorated. To prevent this from happening, have your boss and anyone else senior in the project, approve a standard methodology for assessing success and schedule standard updates for the project. This way, there are no surprises on a project (s) progress (or lack of progress), and everyone agrees on how to evaluate the project’s success (or lack of success). The bottom line: having an agreed upon way to evaluate and measure a project’s success is an integral way to ensure no unwelcome news surprises.

Inform your boss of the bad news in a first report within 15 minutes

No one likes to be the last one to hear bad news. When you first hear of bad news, gather as much information as you can in 15 MINUTES and then go inform your boss. In all organizations, bad news and the rumors that bad news creates travel extremely fast. In addition, the first reports of bad news tend to miss key facts and other information almost always. After informing your boss and before you leave them, ask when they need additional information and/or a plan on how to react to the situation. Be sure to give your boss written information and a brief timeline to provide to his/her superior. The bottom line: do not let bad news become worse by not informing your boss immediately. Come to your boss within 15 minutes with a first report of the situation.

Do not rush back in with 25 percent of the information & no response plan

The thing that bosses hate most after being surprised by bad information, is when they are given no plan to repair an unpleasant situation. Plans go wrong all the time, but uncorrected initial information combined with no plan to rectify the current situation, can make a boss go over the “red” line quickly. After first informing your boss about the bad news, then go back out to gather and to reconfirm the bad news. Importantly, start to put together a plan or strategic options how to react to the bad news with the help and guidance of other critical experts in your organization. The bottom line: When you hear bad news then do your best to confirm the information, gather additional facts, and create a plan with other experts for your boss how to react to the bad news and to get back on plan.

Do not forget about your other priorities

A classic response in corporate settings is to over-react to the bad news and start to focus 100 percent of the organization on just that problem. Instead, ensure that your other priorities, projects, and plans are in a good situation, progressing, and not showing any possible related problems. The bottom line: do not overreact in your reposes to the bad news and stop being successful on your other projects.  Remember that success comes from multiple projects and one piece of bad news should not deter your strategic focus.

Preparing for bad news is the first step to ensuring a successful project. No matter the amount of planning, bad news will always and will continue to happen. Make sure that you have a regular time and process to inform your boss on the current state of your project(s). When reacting to bad news always bring in additional experts to help understand the problem and formulate and effective response. As bad news occurs, make sure you inform your boss as soon as possible, have a plan to rectify the situation, and make sure you remember and succeed on your other priorities.

Chad Storlie
Chad Storlie is a retired US Army Special Forces officer and an adjunct Professor of Marketing at Flagler College. He is a mid-level B2B marketing executive and a widely published author on leadership, business, military and technology topics.


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