5 Critical Tips When Delivering Bad News to the Boss

Sep 1, 2014
6 Min Read

Giving the boss bad news is never fun.  But it’s a fact of life that things will go wrong sometime, so how do you impart bad tidings to a higher up without having it impact your career?  (Hint: It doesn’t involve hiding in the supply closet.) 

No one likes unpleasant surprises, and that includes your boss.

But when you have bad news about sales performance or a new product development, for example, your vice president wants to hear about it right away.

So how do you deliver bad news without it becoming a shoot-the-messenger scenario?

Jodi Glilckman, author of “Great on the Job,” says “it’s unrealistic to think that mishaps, miscommunications and outright screw-ups won’t happen. They will. The goal, therefore, is damage control.”

The key whenever there is bad news to deliver to the boss is not panicking (OK, you can panic for 5 minutes, but no more). But then you’ve got to figure out some solutions to present to the boss because most bosses don’t want to hear about problems, they want to hear about solutions.

And don’t even think of trying to sweep the whole thing under the rug, Glickman cautions.

“It’s not that hard to convince yourself that problems will disappear on their own if you just let them be,” she says. “But that strategy is akin to playing Russian roulette with your career – you have absolutely no way of knowing, much less controlling, the outcome.”

If you’ve got bad news to deliver to the boss, here are some ways to minimize the damage to your career and perhaps even garner some kudos for being good in a crisis:

  1. Pick the right time and place. While you don’t want to intentionally delay giving the boss bad news, you also don’t want to blurt it out as she’s running for an elevator or showing some clients around the office. Schedule some time one-on-one when you won’t be interrupted and stress that it’s not something that can be put off. This also will help to let your boss know the topic is serious and you’re taking it seriously.
  2. Do your homework. If the problem is that a big mistake was made in a report to investors, then the boss is going to want to know why. Glickman suggests collecting information on where things went wrong as quickly as you can, or letting the boss know when all the information on the problem will be available.
  3. Be specific and concise. The boss is going to want to know the exact problem and the impact. If a competitor beating your product to market is going to hurt overseas sales by 25%, say so. Avoid blaming a specific person, which can sound petty. Focus on the problem and don’t let yourself get angry or upset. That only adds to the boss’s stress, not something you want to be doing at this point.
  4. Offer a response. Don’t just dump the problem on the boss and sit back to watch the fallout. Be prepared to say something like, “This is what I’ve already done” and then offer some other potential solutions. Explain how you think each one might be helpful, how long it would take to implement, etc.
  5. Smooth things over.  Glickman explains that sometimes people balk at apologizing because accepting blame will only make the situation worse. Or, “I look like a jerk if I don’t apologize,” she says.  If you do decide to apologize, keep it short and quickly move forward to focusing on the solution, she advises.

Finally, you might want to consider findings from research that reveal it’s best to deliver bad news, then talk about something else for a bit before you mention a bit of good news.  That helps the person who is hearing the bad news feel  more upbeat.

So, after you reveal the bad news, transition to some other business and then end your meeting with telling the  boss that a new customer, for example, just signed a five-year contract – or that she just won the lottery.

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