How to Deliver Bad News to Your Team

Unfortunately, bad things happen in our lives, and the projects we`re managing are not an exception. A project may be downsized or cancelled, some people may have a bad performance review or even have to be dismissed, customers may not be happy with the product, etc. This is just a short list of troubles you as a project manager may face on your project.

When a bad thing happens, it’s a manager’s responsibility to let people know about the setback. I know, it’s one of the most unpleasant parts of our jobs, but we all have to do this. The only question is how to do this right? Frankly speaking, I don`t know the correct answer. Fortunately, I haven’t done it very often, but as I have accumulated some experience and thoughts on delivering bad news to my team members, I want to share them with you in this article.

The most unpleasant thing in delivering bad news is that you know in advance what the reaction will be. The people will be disappointed, stressed out, maybe even angry. They probably won’t show this, but they will definitely blame you deep inside as a reporter of bad news. There is also some overreaction possible: ladies may start crying out, men may start yelling. It’s very difficult to overcome this emotionally. Definitely, these conversations need some serious preparation.

This preparation has to give an answer to a couple of questions, in particular:

  • What is the best form of delivering the bad news?
  • What is the correct time for doing this?
  • What is the proper place to deliver the bad news?

Let’s try to answer them all.

What is the best form of delivering the bad news?

I strongly believe that bad news should be conveyed to the group or to the person directly by the project manager. Sending email or delegating delivery of the news to someone else is not an option. When people get unpleasant and unexpected information they definitely become disappointed, but they also have questions and seek the answers to them. Being a leader, you are expected to provide these answers. If you once have chosen a leadership path, pluck up your courage to show up and deliver the bad news to your team. Be ready to answer their questions, explain the reasons behind the misfortune and becalm your people.

It may happen that the bad news directly impact only certain people in your team but have some implicit impact on the whole team. For example, some people from your team may be laid off. In this case it make sense to inform directly affected people first. Only after they have known and accepted the news, you may let the rest of the team get to know everything. Never tell in front of the team that someone is fired without informing this person in advance. Most of the people feel uncomfortable when the attention of the group is focused on them. And if this focus is caused by some negative circumstances, it may result in a huge stress for this person.

What is the correct time for delivering bad news?

Being a project manager, you are one of the first on the project who gets all the news, including the bad one. It may be a benefit for you, but it is also a burden. When you get some bad news you can`t hide it from the team for a very long time, because they get to know everything sooner or later for sure. And it is better if they get to know news from you rather than from anyone else, because you as a leader of your team definitely know what the best way to present the information is. At the same time it’s not good to drop the news onto your team immediately after learning it. You need some time. Of course, there may be situations when you have to inform your team immediately, but in most cases you’d better wait for a couple of days for a purpose. Let’s see why.

Usually you need a day to cope with your own emotions. You should accept the fact that something bad has happened and try to figure out what to do next. You should think of the most damaging consequences possible and how you are going to present the news to the team. You should also figure out why it has happened so and decide what to do in order to avoid such things in the future.

You should devote the second day to the meetings with some key people and consulting with them about the situation. For example, if you have lost your most valuable customer, you may meet with them to better understand what the reason was. Who knows, they may change their minds during this meeting and the bad news will vanish. You may also see upper management discussing the company strategy, or you may talk to human resources team discussing the future of people who are dismissed, etc.

Then on the third day, if nothing changes, you should get ready to deliver bad news to the team. I will describe how to do this later in this article.

One extra tip is try not to deliver bad news on Friday in order not to ruin people’s week end. If it is possible to wait for some days, save the news for Monday morning.

What is the proper place to deliver bad news?

Bad news is a serious topic, something that can change people destinies. So, the best setting to deliver bad news is a formal setting. Depending on the number of recipients, it may be either a meeting room or a conference hall. Never deliver bad news during lunch or coffee break when people feel relaxed. In this case you will only amplify the negative impact of the bad news.

As many of us are managing remote teams, we have some specificity here. We can`t gather all the people in one and the same place at a time and directly deliver news to them. Instead, we usually use some telecommuting tools such as Skype, Zoom, Hangouts, etc. The point is that when you deliver news in such a way, you can`t see or even hear people’s reaction to the news. But who am I kidding here? Of course, you can`t see and hear their reaction, but you definitely can feel it.

Now when we have answered the basic preparation questions let’s also talk about some general suggestions on how to behave when delivering bad news.

How to deliver bad news to the team

  1. Be honest. Don`t try to sugar-coat your message, because in such a way you may create false expectations in people’s minds. This may lead to even more negative consequences. Try to deliver the news exactly as they are. Bad news is bad by nature. Don’t try to disguise it as anything else.
  2. Be confident. I know that it is easier to say than to do, but this is what your teammates expect from you as a leader. Your confidence shows them that, despite what happened, this is not the end of the world. Being confident in difficult situations needs some training and experience, but this is where all the previous preparation can really help.
  3. Suggest an action plan. Try to mitigate bad news by suggesting some action plan that will help your team or even individuals to overcome the difficulties caused by the bad news.
  4. Follow through. Never limit yourself by just delivering bad news to your team. I believe that it is your responsibility as a leader to help your people get through the bad news. After you have let the employees digest the information and next steps, shortly check in with them again to see how it’s going.

These are my rules of delivering bad news and now it’s your turn. Please, share in the comments how you feel about bringing bad news to your teammates. What is your advice?

Also, I suggest you watching this episode from the movie “Up in the Year” where difficult conversations are shown. However, in my opinion, this is the very example of how not to deliver bad news. What do you think?

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