Communicating bad news is a job skill

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Jul 18

In our work, we get news that affects what we are working on all of the time. There is the inevitable “emergency du jour” that gets our day off track every day. There are legitimate changes in priority of the tasks we are working on for the day. And there are surprises that we simply can’t control.

Any and all of these changes affect the schedule and quality of the work we do. The changes require us to communicate bad news to our managers.

Communicating bad news, in my opinion, is a job skill that needs developing. So how do we effectively communicate bad news?

Communicating Bad News

Communicating bad news is tough – made worse by the type of manager you are working for at the moment. Let’s take a look at how to communicate the bad news:

Be positive

This, perhaps, makes no sense, but staying positive about the news makes a big difference in how it is received. If you tell your manager that you have “bad news,” the attitude becomes different. If you think about it, to your manager, the news you bring may not be bad news at all, but, instead, a welcome development that you found that helps a different project.

Being positive means you don’t define something as “bad news.” Instead, it is “information that changes the scope of the work” you are doing. Or it is  information that needs prioritizing. “You gave me this additional task and it looks to me as if doing both can’t be done in our delivery time frame.” (See: Defining Done)

Frame the bad news around the work to be done

When you get the bad news that needs sharing, take a few deep breaths and make sure you are not overreacting – or liable to take out your frustrations on your manager. Your manager won’t remember everything you are doing, nor every issue going on at your work. Framing the bad news around the work to be done gets you into “solve the problem” mode rather than blaming people mode.

Communicate bad news early

Nothing is worse than waiting until the last minute – the day the deliverable is due, for example – to communicate bad news. My motto was “communicate bad news early and often.”

Time left before the work is completed is your friend. The more of it you have, the more opportunity there is to overcome the bad news and still get your stuff done on time. The greater the opportunity of your manager being able to help get the work done by eliminating some roadblock.

Offer solutions

Depending on your manager’s style, it may make sense to offer alternatives to the bad news you are presenting. “I can still complete this if we can have Fred complete this one part of the work.” “If marketing will accept this role, then we can continue the project. Do you think that’s a good idea?”

If your manager is into solving problems, and good ones are, you’ll get the bad news turned into an opportunity. If your manager is into being a hero who must come up with every solution, simply beg for help because offering solutions makes it look like you know everything. It happened to me…

Communicating bad news is hard at first, but using this format will develop this skill. You’ll be a better employee and your manager will know it.