How best to tell your boss bad news.

Here’s the best way how to tell your boss bad news

Your boss is the most important person in your working life – and having to give the boss bad news is often the worst fear of a professional communicator. In many ways, this is the personal equivalent of confronting a business crisis – because it doesn’t happen often, but can damage or even destroy your ongoing working relationship with your boss. This article explains the best way how to tell your boss bad news so you maintain a positive and productive relationship with them.

Harvard research in 2019 confirmed that bosses tend to ‘shoot the messenger’ when they receive bad news – they blame the person delivering the negative news, at least to some extent, regardless of whether that person has caused the problem or not. This happens especially when the bad news is unexpected. Intuitively, you may realize you have become unlikeable to your boss just by your association with the bad news when you deliver it. So it is essential to know strategically how best to tell your boss bad news.

When it all started

The concept of ‘shooting the messenger’ has held a place in human culture for more than 2,000 years – originally in Greek literature from around 450 BC (Plutarch’s Lives and Sophocles’ Antigone), and also in Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV, Part 2 and Antony and Cleopatra, according to Wikipedia. In the very early days, the bearer of bad news in war tended to be hanged or beheaded! The concept has probably continued as a well-known saying because it reflects a common psychological trait in human nature to blame the carrier of bad news.

Human nature to ‘shoot the messenger’

The Harvard research found that people, including bosses, are prone to blame – or at least will tend to dislike the messenger. What’s worse, this deeply ingrained tendency to shoot the messenger is difficult to change. This is because a key part of making sense of the information is, at least to some extent, to blame the person who has delivered it, or at least to associate them with the negative issue.

People have a powerful need to understand and make sense of events that have happened to them. This sense-making creates mental connections between things, events and relationships. We have a particularly strong drive to make sense of unexpected and negative things, so we tend to mentally create explanations, or attribute apparent causes, for the negative outcomes. An important part of this is to allocate blame. However, the tendency to dislike bearers of bad news is reduced when recipients are made aware of the positive nature of the messenger’s motives, according to the studies in the Harvard research project.

As the bearer of bad news, we can experience the downside of a ‘double whammy.’ First, the receiver may start to dislike us, as discussed above. Secondly, the receiver may then be reluctant to recognize and accept us as a potential part of the solution.

Here’s the best way how to tell your boss bad news

You can take a range of actions immediately when you understand you will be obliged to deliver the bad news to your boss:

1. Decide the importance and urgency of the bad news.

Decide if the bad news is so important you need to immediately report it to your boss (eg even to interrupt your boss in an executive meeting), or if you can choose an appropriate time (such as in between your boss’s other commitments). Agreeing on these expectations upfront with your boss will help you put your time and energy into solving issues when a bad situation presents itself, as opposed to wondering if your boss needs to know about it immediately.

When it is vital to deliver bad news to your boss and you are tempted to delay, remember that it’s in the best interests of both yourself and your organization for you step up, get over your fears and do the right thing. Also, keep in mind that sharing the news quickly can reduce the chances of employees spreading rumors about it.

2. It’s vital to deliver the information in person. 

The means of contact is important for big issues or crises. Try to meet face-to-face where possible, or at least on a video call. They need to see your face. Don’t leave big matters to an email or for the boss’s PA to pass a Post-it note to them during a meeting. If you are working remotely, or if your boss is out of town, you should go for a video call.

3. Offer your boss some control.Here's the best way how to tell your boss bad news.

For instance, knock on their office door and ask them: “Is now a good time to talk?” or “Do you have a few minutes to talk? – A serious problem has come up!”

4. Let your boss know how serious the problem is, and when it needs to be solved.

You can say something like: “This is a high-priority issue. I think we need to quickly decide how and when we should best respond.”

5. Check that your boss knows the context.

Your boss needs to understand the background, so you should ask something like: “Are you up to date with the latest work we have been doing on the [name of project]?” If they aren’t, you can say, “As you know, we’ve been working on the project for the past year. This project involves…” Summarize the problem as in Item 7 below. Then you can say, “Unfortunately, I’ve got some bad news about the project.”

6. Frame the summary information you deliver to your boss.

Sometimes there may be positive aspects to the big bad issue. Your boss is less likely to dislike you when you clearly show good intent and positive progress with the activity to date. For example, a delayed project completion may enable your team to attend to more detail in the extra time. Another angle is to say something like: “We have been working flat out to make the project quickly successful but supplier problems mean we don’t think we can complete it by the deadline.” It’s also better to show that others share your view about it needing quick action rather than you deciding only by yourself, eg “we don’t think that…”, rather than it being only your view: “I don’t think that…”

Also, even if it is a significant problem, you may be able to start the fixing process while your boss is unavailable at the moment, and then you can consult your boss immediately they are available. Doing this will enable you to take the initiative, and not just talk about fixing. Discuss how you are following up or have thought of a new approach or strategy that helps to solve the problem. This demonstrates your leadership skills.

7. Deliver the message in the way your boss best relates to.  

Your boss may prefer to receive ‘big picture’ information, or they may prefer detailed reporting. Early after you and your boss were appointed to your respective roles, you should clarify their preferences so you don’t annoy them with inappropriate amounts of information.

8. Stay calm and manage your delivery of the bad news.

Show confident body language. Don’t look nervous. “When our body language is confident and open, other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves,” says Dr Amy Cuddy in her book, Presence. She also says “The way to influence is to begin with warmth,” so project a positive approach, look your boss in the eye, stand up straight, and deliver your message. Sit down if invited.

9. Summarize the problem in a few sentences.

Be clear about the situation. Explain what and when it happened, who is impacted because of it, and the possible delay and cost. Keep it simple where you can, and stick to the key points. Don’t justify. Don’t give an excuse. State facts, not your assumptions or your opinions. Ask your boss if your explanation is clear – and if they have any questions to clarify their understanding of the situation. You don’t want them to miscommunicate to others about the matter.

Also, don’t take up unnecessary time debating the cause/s of the big problem. You can offer some thoughts on this if your boss asks the question. But often when you bring bad news, the root cause doesn’t really matter. Immediately discussing the cause/s in detail won’t immediately help to solve the problem.

10. Practice delivering the bad news.

The words you use to convey the message play a crucial role in determining how your boss perceives the big bad news. Quickly practice exactly what you are going to say. It’s critical for you to rehearse this even for only a few minutes because when you don’t practice, you are likely to say some things you didn’t intend. You can quickly write down the key points for your memory, and then speak briefly to them, preferably not referring to them in the briefing unless your memory gets stuck.

For example, instead of saying:

“I have no idea how this happened. We didn’t see this coming. The service provider didn’t alert us to potential problems at the start of the contract, But today they told us they wouldn’t be able to complete the work by the agreed date.”

…say something like:

“I have bad news. One of our clients [client name] decided to end our contract today. I have been trying to understand what could have gone wrong. I think why they don’t want to continue is [some reason]. I am planning to have another call with them to see if we can still turn this around and change their decision. I’ve discussed revised strategies with our team, and we believe we have three options we can take. Would you like to hear them right now, or after you’ve had a chance to think about this?” [If your boss wants to discuss the options now, you can follow the suggestions in item 12 below.]

11. Think about the stakeholders – the people affected.

Think about who is affected, or will be. This includes internally – your team and other teams, executives (CEO?), and your organization as a whole – as well as externally. Include consideration of customers, suppliers, and perhaps government regulators, and probably a combination of all these stakeholders. Being clear about who will be affected will help your boss to quickly understand the situation.

If you can, prioritize the stakeholders who are likely to experience the greatest impact, and go downwards in priority order to those who are likely to be the least affected. Also, see if you can gain insight from your boss’s perspective, and try to determine which stakeholders will concern your boss the most (the loudest voice in the news media, the most contacts, the most influential?) — so ensure they are high on your list.

For each stakeholder you’ve identified, list the perceived impact this problem is having on them and the duration you expect. Timeframes can significantly change the size of the impact, which in turn, can affect how you prioritize addressing the issue. In explaining to your boss, aim to answer the following questions, as discussed in an HBR 2022 article:

  • Will this problem financially hurt your organization? Has it already?
  • Will customers be unhappy with their experience? Are they currently?
  • Have employees lost trust and morale?
  • How long was this a problem before you identified it?
  • If your problem hasn’t yet had a significant impact on stakeholders, when will the impact most likely start, and how much time will you have to solve it before it does?

12. Summarize solutions, and report any actions you have already taken.

If your boss is the decision maker in this case, offer them some options and a recommended plan to address the problem. This will give them some more control over the situation, it will demonstrate that you value their input, and want to work together to reach a solution. You can say: “That’s the situation. I have some thoughts on some possible solutions. Would you like to hear about them right now?”

Your boss won’t always be looking for your solutions immediately. You’ve had time to think this over, but your boss is just hearing about it now and may need more time to catch up on it. If your boss wants to think about solutions on their own, let them work through the problem in their own way (possibly in consultation with others), and to get back to you afterwards.

If your boss says “yes,” offer your solutions.

When you offer only one solution, your boss is likely to discard it and will either look for variations or look for quite a different solution. Therefore, it’s best to offer three solutions, and outline why you think your recommended solution will work the best, as well as discuss any further potential risks that could arise. Sharing possible fixes shows your manager you’re a problem-solver who’s capable of thinking on your feet. It also demonstrates your accountability and your ability to move forward after experiencing a setback rather than dwelling on what went wrong or passing on the blame.

 

13. Be prepared for questions.

Thinking through the conversation ahead of time and planning for any possible questions will help you navigate the situation. Spend a short time rehearsing your answers to possible questions.

14. Write a summary of the agreed actions to be taken.

Once you agree on a course of action, summarize and record the details of the solution. This is crucial. Be as detailed and specific as necessary, and don’t assume anything. Ask questions as needed to gather any further information you need to prepare your summary. Such communication (an email would be appropriate) could say something like this:

“I will write a summary of our agreed forward action, and will send it to you today by 4 pm. After receiving your approval, I’ll contact everyone who will be involved by close of business tomorrow. Then I’ll report our results by [date] to share what progress we have made and any further challenges that we might have to face. Does that work for you?”

This allows you to check your understanding and to clarify what you agreed to do. It also covers your backside if any misunderstandings arise later with your boss about the intended action.

Also, reassure your boss that you have prepared for the worst-case scenario. And explain how you will avoid a similar situation in future.

15. Provide progress updates.

When you and your boss have agreed on a decision, and you start implementing it, communicate with the boss to keep them updated on progress you make or on any further issues that arise along the way. This means they aren’t left in the dark, especially if they are asked a question during an executive meeting. When the matter is fairly short-term, and can be fixed soon, update your boss on the timeframe and how you recommend tackling it. Consider writing regular, concise updates to other stakeholders.

With work already in progress on a project, bad news is not likely to be a complete surprise. Providing regular updates to your boss will keep them involved with the project. This helps you avoid the entire surprise of reporting bad news.

16. Accept responsibility where appropriate.

Show you have what it takes to set things right. Don’t try to blame others! If you are partly responsible for the problem, accept responsibility for your part of it. And you can generalize about internal others being responsible. Focusing on blame is a bad idea because it reduces our ability to learn what’s really causing the problem and to do anything meaningful to correct it. However, if you are asked specifically about others who are to blame, make your response fair to the other participants. You can be blunter about external causes. One of the risks of blaming others within your organization is that they are likely to hear about it on the grapevine at some stage. This may have a detrimental effect on their future morale and performance. Also, they may try to undermine you if they have future opportunities to do this, especially if they believe you have unfairly criticized them.

17. Thank your boss for listening, even if they aren’t happy.

Showing respect to your boss by thanking them for listening, asking them for their ideas, and for their positive role in seeking a solution to the problem. This is likely to draw a better response from them than otherwise.

18. Prepare your own ‘serious issue’ action list for future reference.

I have provided the above detailed action considerations for you in this article as the basis for communicating with your boss and even higher management about potential and actual future serious issues. I recommend that you develop your own specific checklist after reviewing the actions outlined above, which are based on experts’ recommendations and my own experience. You can adapt them to your own requirements as your personal crisis communication list. Preparing such a list will enable you to quickly alert your boss and potentially senior management about strong decisions needed for a quick response to emerging and actual crises.

Further reading

You can read more about forming a strong relationship with your boss in my article, “Successfully manage your relationship with your boss to boost your career.”

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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