Executive Suite: Work dilemma: delivering bad news a good way

Mimi Browning

There is no easy way to give bad news in the work place. Years ago at a Harvard seminar composed of senior Defense Department executives, the professor asked if anyone had ever had a good experience delivering bad news to their supervisor or employees. In the audience of more than 100, not a single hand was raised.

In the delicate arenas of managing your supervisor or dealing with employees, preparation, dispassion and timing can mitigate potentially unfavorable results. Here are some tips for a successful engagement:
  • Should you tell?

    There are two parts to deciding whether you must tell the news. First, is the negative information newsworthy? For example, trivial, noncriminal mistakes or one-time bad behaviors (everyone deserves some slack on a bad hair day) are best left alone. But such things as projects going south, fraudulent travel claims or consistent hostile behavior must be dealt with swiftly and candidly.
    Secondly, if the bad news must be told, are you the best person to do so? If you have direct knowledge and it is in your area of responsibility, then it is your obligation to relay the news.

  • Prepare and rehearse

    There are several objectives in writing the script. They are to gather the pertinent facts, dispassionately recount the story and balance the bad with the good.
    For example, you have to tell the boss that the agency director's computer crashed with all his important files. This can best be done by stating what caused the crash, the current situation, and how and when you plan to fix it.
    During performance appraisals, acknowledge positive achievements and give context to the negatives as areas for improvement. Try to have an equal number of good and improvement areas to discuss.

  • Don't be the lone voice

    Sadly, there are still some individuals who shoot the messenger or who 'revise' confidential information for their benefit after one-on-one conversations. If you are giving bad news to such a person, your best tactic is to bring someone with you to share in giving the news.
    In such a situation, give each person a consistent and credible part in the script. If appropriate, take advantage of your organization's internal resources such as auditors, inspectors or human resources experts.

  • Dispassion, logic and patience

    Unless weapons of mass destruction are at your doorstep, cool down and get your facts straight before marching in on the boss or one of your employees. This gives you time to gather the relevant facts (there are two sides to every story), make sure they make sense, and take advantage of any ameliorating conditions that may have occurred.
    Be patient with the reaction from the person who is getting the news. Give that person time to vent, think, recover and act wisely.

  • Consider timing

    Some people are least pleasant in the morning, and others are afternoon grumps. If possible, schedule the timing of your news for the individual.
    Similarly, if time is not a factor, do not give people bad news on Friday afternoon for them to dwell on over the weekend. A good leader will make sure people are high-spirited and motivated on Friday afternoons so they will enjoy the weekend and come back to work on Monday, refreshed and ready for anything. Hit them Tuesday morning.

Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com.

About the Author

Browning is a former Army senior executives and former Booz Allen Hamilton principal who now leads Browning Consultants.

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