Category Archives: workplace behavior

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

The 5 Pieces of Advice I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Entered the Workforce

As someone who has managed a number of young professionals over my career in the AEC industry, I’ve had a chance to think about the advice I wish I had been given when I entered the workforce.  It would have given me a jump start on ensuring I was the kind of professional they would value and promote.

  1. Dress ready. – As a boss I’ve had more conversations than I care to with someone who came to work dressed unprofessionally.  The best way I can describe appropriate workplace attire is to dress ready.  For example, when firm leaders are going to a client meeting and looking for a junior staff member to take along, they base their decision, in part, on who looks ready for such an opportunity.  Be ready.
  2. It is your own job to protect your interests.  – Your boss is not clairvoyant and you are not the center of his or her universe.  If someone gives you more work than you can handle, speak up.  If someone is not clear about their expectations, ask.  Pouting and flashing a stink eye are no substitute for direct communication.  For example, if you are already at capacity working on three proposals and your boss brings you a fourth, you might want to ask, “Since I’m already booked solid, which of the projects you’ve already given me should I stop doing so I can do this one?”  It shows both that you’re busy and that you care about your boss’s priorities.
  3. Don’t just bring problems, bring solutions. – If you want a bigger title or more responsibility, show that you can handle it.  For example, instead of saying, “The binding machine is broken,”, you might want to go with, “The binding machine is broken so I’ve called the repair place. I found a local print shop that can do this week’s binding for us, but we need to complete our drafts a day sooner than we thought to make this work.  Okay?”
  4. Gossip generates more heat than light. – Palace intrigue, while tempting as a lunchtime conversation topic with your workplace bestie, should not be the focus of your professional life.  Pay attention to your job, not the resident character assassins.  All that focusing on gossip will do is demonstrate that you can’t be trusted.
  5. Find a mentor. – Either your company or your local professional association can connect you with someone who knows your industry and can be your sounding board when things around you don’t make sense, when you want something you don’t know how to ask for, or when you need a new way to solve a problem.  Someone with an objective view of the problem and the players is often all you need to get on the right course.

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Filed under marketing, professionalism, workplace behavior