How to Deliver Bad News

Occasionally, throughout my career, I have had to deliver bad news and I’ve had a fair bit delivered to me.  Sometimes it has been about people (not getting a desired job, raise or promotion), sometimes about mistakes that were made on the job (proposal did not get delivered by deadline, project can’t be taken on).  As we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this can range anywhere from telling your kid you have to cancel their birthday party to telling a staff member or consultant that a project has gone on hold to letting friends or colleagues know that someone they have come in contact with has become ill.  Over a few recessions, a natural disaster or two and now a pandemic, I’ve learned a few things about how to deliver bad news.  As I watch elected and healthcare officials talk about “abundance of caution”, I learn more.  Here’s what I think helps:

  1. Recognize that doing this will be difficult for you and for the other person.  Most of us hate conflict so it’s legitimate to feel some remorse about being the “bad guy”.  Before delivering uncomfortable news, it’s important to take a moment to acknowledge our feelings about having to be the messenger so we can come to the interaction in a supportive and businesslike fashion.
  2. Focus on what you can do.  If the news you have to deliver is that you can’t do/ didn’t succeed at something, look at what you can do to solve the problem.  For example, “I can’t work on that today but let me see who else has some time to assist you.”  or “I can’t talk with you about this right now; could we meet tomorrow?”  If a messenger service doesn’t deliver an RFP by the deadline, you can ask the messenger service to call the client and admit the error.  If you make an error you can’t reverse, you can own up and talk about the steps you’ll take to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
  3. Don’t blame the recipient.  During the Great Recession, I was laid off by someone who seemed angry with me that they had to tell me about it.  Thus, while that the person was telling me it wasn’t my fault, their demeanor made it felt like they were blaming me.  Getting bad news is difficult enough, so the emotional complexities of the bearer should not complicate it.  In other words, check yourself before you wreck yourself and the other person.
  4. Don’t delay.  Our anxiety about conflict usually makes us want to postpone difficult conversations.  On the flipside, the stress of not knowing can sometimes be more uncomfortable than having the information that allows us to move onward.  My rule is, I delay long enough to process my feelings (absolutely less than half a day) then bite the bullet and get it done.  Bad news doesn’t get better with age, and it usually gets worse if someone finds out through back channels rather than directly from you.
  5. When appropriate, clearly and succinctly explain why.  It is usually good for someone to know why something bad happened/is happening, but not always appropriate.  When it is appropriate, it helps to be clear and succinct about the why and to use concrete examples of behavior or circumstances to illustrate the point.  When is it not appropriate?  For me, it’s either when there’s an HR issue involving another employee (which you can’t disclose) or when someone continues to ask for something you’ve already said no to and there’s not a work around. In the latter case, remember “No” is a complete sentence.

Delivering bad news is never pleasant (at least it shouldn’t be), but we can at least make it a little easier by doing it thoughtfully.

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Filed under bad news, Human Experience, Uncategorized, workplace behavior

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