How to deliver bad news to your boss.

How to deliver bad news to your boss

Giving our boss bad news is one of the worst moments in our career. We get an awful and awkward feeling when we must give the bad news, but recent scientific research also shows that people tend to dislike us for delivering bad news to them regardless of our own merit or involvement in the case. But at least we can learn about effective ways to deliver bad news to the boss.

So, what can you do to reduce the strain on your relationship caused when you are the messenger of bad tidings? Here are the best action tips for you to follow to reduce your boss’s antagonism towards you when you deliver bad news:

  1. If the issue is important, deliver it in person.

As a priority, deliver bad news in person. This shows you respect your boss enough to not hold back from a difficult meeting and is much more tactful than sending an email or a text message which are relatively impersonal forms of communication.

Think about your body language. Speak clearly, look your boss in the eye, stand up or sit up straight as you deliver your message, and maintain that positive posture.

If an in-person meeting isn’t possible, or the information needs to be discussed immediately, phone your boss. A phone call is more effective than a video meeting or texting because research has found the spoken voice is surprisingly emotive, and communicates just as much as facial expressions on video, according to research in 2020. Your announcement of bad news to your boss should never be done via email, chat or a tool like Slack.

  1. Think about the way you convey the news to your boss.

When you must give bad tidings, try to imply that you are responding to it to help them. Something like, “We all wanted this to turn out to be a great result, but I think we all can see it’s not working as well as we wanted. I would like to suggest working together now to find an acceptable solution.” If your boss perceives your good intentions, they will be less likely to take their negative feelings out on you.

  1. Timing when to approach your boss with bad news.

Decide if your boss actually needs to know immediately. Pause to consider if the situation is worth telling him or her straightaway. For instance, if your boss is attending an important meeting, he or she won’t want to be interrupted unnecessarily.

Offer your boss at least some control at the start. For instance, if they are accessible, ask “Is now a good time to talk?” It gives your boss the choice of bracing themselves straightaway or delaying until they have more time or fewer hassles on their plate. If it’s not a good time, arrange a better time later for you to talk privately without interruption. If you can, give them an idea of how long you may need for this discussion. But don’t delay too long because delaying may make the situation worse.

Also, even if it is a significant problem, you may be able to start the fixing process while your boss is engaged at the moment, and then consult your boss immediately if he or she is available. Doing this will enable you to take the initiative, and not just talk about fixing. Talk about 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.

  1. Prepare ahead if you can.

Understand and analyze what happened and why. Know the facts and details that will support your summary and your opinion. Practice summarizing the problem in a couple of sentences. Based on what you know of your boss, you are likely to know their preferences for receiving information. Some bosses want just the summary, while others want to know the details. Don’t discuss more details than necessary, unless they ask – or your discussion may go down rabbit holes.

  1. Check your boss’s awareness of the context.

Determine how much your boss knows about the situation. They may not understand the issue, so they may want to make a decision on a limited number of facts. Ask them how much they know about this issue, and offer to explain its details and background. But stick to the main points so you don’t get buried by discussion of the details. By doing this, you will able to better deliver the bad news to your boss.

  1. Be clear and straightforward about the facts.

Summarize as best you can what the problem is. Be honest about it, and try not to blame someone else. If you are at fault or have a role in the problem situation, apologize candidly. Mention your part, but nothing further. When you deliver bad news, knowing the root cause doesn’t really matter – because often this doesn’t help solve the immediate problem.

  1. Think about the stakeholders – the people affected.

Think about who is affected, or will be. This includes internally – your team and other teams, and your organization as a whole – as well as externally, including 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 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 him or her 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 what impact this problem is having on them and the duration you expect. Timeframes can significantly change the scale of an impact, which in turn, can affect how you prioritize addressing the issue. In your explanation to your boss, aim to answer the following questions:

  • 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 you’re dealing with a problem that hasn’t yet had a tangible impact on stakeholders, when will the impact most likely start, and how much time will you have to solve it before it does?
  1. Offer solutions.

If your boss is the decision maker in this case, offer them some options and a recommended plan to address the problem. This will demonstrate that you value their input, and want to work together to reach a solution. When you offer only one solution, your boss is bound to discard it and will either look for variations or look for quite a different solution. It’s common to offer three solutions for a decision, and you can do this, especially outlining the one you recommend. Frequently, it’s the middle decision. Don’t caught on this; you can offer 4 alternative decisions so your boss won’t just go for the middle choice.

If your boss wants to think about solutions on their own, let them work through the problem in their own way, and get back to you afterwards. In some ways, this reduces the onus on you, and therefore makes it easier to deliver bad news to your boss.

  1. Document the agreed solution.

If 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. Such communication (an email would be appropriate) could sound something like this:

“I will summarize what we both have agreed to do and will get it to you today by 4 pm today. After receiving your approval, I’ll contact everyone who will be involved by close of business tomorrow. Then I’ll report our results within three days to share what progress we have made and any challenges that we may be having. Does that work for you?”

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

  1. Keep your boss updated.

When you and your boss have agreed on a decision, communicate with him or her to keep them updated on the progress you make or on any further issues that arise along the way, so they aren’t left in the dark. When the matter is comparatively short-term, and can be fixed soon, update your boss on the timeframe and how you recommend tackling it.

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

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

Showing respect to your boss by thanking them for listening, and asking them for their ideas, is likely to draw a better response from them than otherwise.

Overall, by learning from the advice in this article, you will understand the best way to deliver bad news to your boss.

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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