How to Deliver Bad News

Last Updated Jan 26, 2011 7:34 PM EST

How to Deliver Bad NewsEveryone in a leadership or management position has to deliver bad news from time to time. Occasionally, we have to deliver really bad news. It just comes with the territory.

While that's never fun or easy to deal with, I've found that it's rarely as scary as we make it out to be. It's the buildup in our minds and the rush to get it over with that often results in a negative outcome.

For example, a friend suggested this topic because he had the impression that I had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. He was right; I have had to deliver more than my fair share of bad news.

Well, guess what? I avoided writing the post because I didn't want to remember all that stuff. See? Strong emotional memories.

Anyway, here are some examples. Some fall into the B2B category while others are more management, i.e. person-to-person, oriented:
  • Telling a major customer that my company will fail to meet its delivery schedule of a key component, ultimately causing a shutdown of the customer's production line. More on this example later.
  • Informing my boss that we lost a key customer, are going over budget, or would miss a key schedule milestone.
  • Communicating a revenue shortfall, schedule slip, or other bad news to the Wall Street analyst community.
  • Explaining to the world - through media interviews - that a product has a bug.
  • Telling the CEO that the presentation file I supposedly loaded on his notebook for a big meeting isn't actually on his notebook and he's going to have to wing it (it took too long to download a big file in those days).
I can go on and on with examples and some really gory stories, and while each one seems unique, there is, more or less, a single method for dealing with this most challenging of business situations.

Not surprisingly, the method incorporates elements of crisis management, customer service, effective communication, and even some psychology. And, if you do it with empathy and finesse, I've found that you can actually improve your relationship with the other party, rather than damage it.

Four Steps to Deliver Bad News
Step One: Be Genuine. Be honest with yourself about the role you personally played in the outcome. This is critical because, if you played a direct role, i.e. you screwed up, you need to be straight with yourself about that or you'll end up feeling guilty and weird and that will come across negatively. In other words, you need to diffuse your own emotional state.

Step Two: Be Empathetic. Put yourself in the other person or people's shoes. I really mean that; give it some time and really get in there. Try your best to understand what they stand to lose as a result of the bad news. Make sure you're clear that, regardless of your personal role in causing the problem, you are, to the other party, responsible and accountable.

Step Three: Plan. Consider all the ways you can make the situation right. In the case of a major delivery issue to a customer, communicating a product bug, or equally significant event, that may require one or more internal premeetings. In any case, you need to have a clear picture of the options at your disposal and under exactly what conditions you and your company are willing to bring them to bear on the problem.

Step Four: The Delivery. Now, and only now, are you ready to deliver the bad news in real time. If you did the first three steps right, your emotional state will be clear. That means you'll be empathetic but not emotionally distraught, freeing your conscious mind to make clear-headed decisions in real time. And depending on the reaction, you have an arsenal of possibilities to offer to help make things right.

Here's a good example of the time that my company (I was head of sales) couldn't deliver a key component on time, resulting in a shut down of my customer's production line.

During the "bad news delivery" face-to-face meeting with the customer, we held a conference call with my company's head of operations who, seemingly on the fly and under pressure from the customer, committed to an accelerated schedule that would minimize my customer's pain.

That was a preplanned contingency to use if necessary. The result was a customer who felt that 1) I would do anything to go to bat for him, 2) my company would pull out all the stops to meet his needs, and 3) he helped to make all that happen by the way he handled the meeting. We all won and our relationship was stronger as a result.

Bottom line. The biggest mistake people make in delivering bad news is the emotional build up and the unnecessary rush to get it over with. They typically don't take the time to 1) diffuse their own emotional state, 2) put themselves in the other person's shoes, and 3) do enough contingency planning to know what can be done to make things right and under what conditions to offer them.

If you follow these four steps, you'll minimize the negative impact and, at times, even come out ahead.

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Image courtesy Flickr user kevindooley

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