7 tips for delivering bad news to your boss

Not gonna lie. Delivering bad news to your boss ain’t fun.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a CEO delivering a “not-so-hot” revised forecast to the Board, or a project manager telling your boss that the project launch date is delayed….yet again.

Moments like these will never be the most pleasant experiences of your professional life. Your boss may well spit the dummy. They may not thank you graciously for bringing this ‘problem’ to their attention.

But it is possible to deliver bad news to your boss with some degree of aplomb and skill. But how do you do that while increasing your chances of coming out the other side looking professional and competent?

The next time you’re the bearer of bad news, try these tips to do it well:

1. Front up, fess up, and don’t fall prey to procrastination.

If you want to put your head in the sand and make like an ostrich, this is your cue to do the opposite.

Delaying the inevitable merely delays the necessary. It may even make it worse.  It will be less pretty if they find out from someone else. Bad news can become terrible news by not informing your boss in a timely manner.

So as soon as you become aware that things aren’t where they should be, start forming your initial communication to your manager.

At the same time…

2. Do take time to plan your communication and your potential solutions to ‘said pickle’.

Make sure you’ve put some thought into the following:

  • What exactly is the problem? Outline the impacts, implications, and facts. Positioning the problem concisely and effectively helps you frame up the conversation.
  • When is the best time to deliver this? Grabbing her as she’s about to go into a high-stress customer meeting, or just before the Board meeting might not be the best timing. Giving thought to time of day and place might seem like a small detail, but it’s an important detail nonetheless.
  • Consider how you can give them a ‘pre-warning’ or heads up. One of my most talented team members would give me a heads up via a short email and ask for a phone call to discuss. From this, I was able to glean it wasn’t great news, which helped me prepare myself. It meant I wasn’t blindsided and could be more emotionally ready to receive the bad news.

3. Fall on your sword.

Take accountability. Accepting responsibility is a crucial part of being a good leader. If it’s happened on your watch, don’t throw others (especially your team) under the bus.

4. Be solutions focused. 

No leader I’ve met likes hearing a problem without at least some thought going into a potential way forward. So come up with potential solutions, options for next steps, and the implications, risks, and benefits of each. Avoid binary solutions and broaden the options to at least three. In their book Decisive Chip Heath and Dan Heath outline research that widening your options beyond binary decisions improves decision-making.

At the very least, outline key learnings.

5. Put yourself in their shoes.

The way your boss likes to be communicated with may be different to you. Are they all about the bottom line or end result and like short, sharp, to-the-point comms? Or do they like to know about process and have the details? Are they usually concerned more with people or the task?  Communicate in a way that meets them where they are.

This is also a good reason why it’s always worthwhile understanding the priorities of your immediate leaders and their leaders!

6. Build in regular and early reporting mechanisms.

This is a tip to adopt before the proverbial hits the fan. Create reporting tools for key success factors that will give you early signals when things are going off track. By doing this, you’ll be more likely to course correct before things turn majorly pear shaped. If something’s already gone off-track, be sure to do this before you move on with the project.

7. Put it in perspective.

Like me, you may have a tendency to catastrophise. There have been occurrences in my professional life which, at the time, I thought would be my career death knell. They weren’t. In fact, they offered up more learning than my successes.

Being the bearer of bad news may not be the most pleasant part of your leadership experiences. But by adopting these guidelines, you can come out the other side a wiser and more competent leader. You never know – you may even gain more respect from your boss than before you delivered the bad news.