The Key to Breaking Bad News to Your Boss? Calmness and Clarity

business analysis bad news

People make mistakes, problems arise, technology fails and unplanned crises threaten business plans. However, people are often judged by how they react to these issues, not the issues themselves.

Delivering bad news to your manager isn’t easy, but if you address the problem the right way you can increase the chances of gaining favor from your boss — whether you caused the issue or not.

Follow these steps to make sure bad news is received calmly.

Choose the Best Time to Deliver the Bad News

Timing is everything when you’re delivering bad news, but professional experts agree that employees should never delay alerting their managers to a problem or issue. Gina Belli at Payscale writes that you boss will appreciate you bringing up the issue immediately, which gives your team more time to fix the problem.

If the news is personal (like if you plan to give your notice to a company or if any employee quits unexpectedly), then delaying sharing the bad news provides time for gossip to spread. In the worst-case scenario, your boss is the last to hear bad news that everyone else knows. However, as you deliver your news, there are ways to handle the situation tactfully, without running in and explaining what’s wrong.

Always Deliver Bad News in Person

“Delivering the news in person is the right thing to do,” Rick Girard writes at Stride Search. “It shows you respect your boss enough to not wimp out of a difficult meeting, and is much more tactful than sending an email.”

If an in-person meeting isn’t possible or the news needs to be shared immediately, set up a phone call or video meeting. Bad news should never be shared via email, chat or a tool like Slack.

Make Sure This is Information Your Boss Needs to Know

When you’re considering the best time to tell your boss, take a second to make sure the situation is actually worth telling him or her in that moment. Sara McCord provides a great example of this when she interrupted her boss’ meeting to bring up an issue. For her boss, the issue wasn’t important enough to merit leaving the meeting.

Along with making sure alerting your boss that moment is necessary, make sure you already taken the steps he or she would have in your situation. For example, if a tech problem arises, make sure your IT department knows and can try to fix it so your boss doesn’t have to ask you to.

Ask For Your Manager’s Undivided Attention

Mark Murphy encourages people to start with a simple sentence whenever they have to give bad news to their higher-ups: “Is now a good time to talk?” You may not have a choice and need to communicate an emergency, but asking that question prepares your boss for what you have to say.

If the news can wait, then asking for time to talk can make it easier to present bad news, instead of piling it onto an already stressful afternoon or rushing through it when your manager is on the way to a meeting.  

Step Into the Meeting With the Right Information

In many cases, a negative reaction to bad news is somewhat preventable. If you have the right information and approach, then you can mitigate negative reactions and focus on issues moving forward.

“If you have correctly planned a project, and if you have been giving regular feedback about the state of the project, then if bad news occurs, it shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise,” John R. Stocker writes at SmartBrief. “This strategy allows you avoid the entire burden of any outcome as it occurs.”

For example, your manager should be aware when he or she signs off on a project about the potential risks involved and how you plan to mitigate them. This person should be kept in the loop about these risks. That way, when something goes wrong, your manager is aware of why it happened and what it means.

Entering a meeting prepared to discuss bad news can give you the chance to turn a negative into a positive when your manager sees how you handle crisis situations.

Choose the Right Person to Present the News

GetVoIP has an excellent infographic on managers delivering bad news, but the information can also be applied to front-line employees. There is a “who” aspect to delivering this news, the GetVoIP team says:

  • Someone needs to take responsibility for the news.

  • The news should not be passed off onto someone else.

  • Only one person should deliver the news.

By choosing one representative to deliver the news, your team won’t talk over each other and confuse the message. Furthermore, by choosing the right person for this responsibility, there is less of a risk of a co-worker getting thrown under the bus.

Provide Multiple Solutions

“Don't just charge into their office, announce that there's an issue and then expect them to clean up the mess for you,” Spandas Lui writes. “When a problem arises, the worst thing you can do is dump it on to them and expect a solution.”

Instead, try to come up with two to three different options (each with their own pros and cons) and present the choices to your boss. Your boss will appreciate that you have thought out plans and can now focus on choosing the best course of action.

Highlight Your Experience With Different Solution Options

When you present your solutions, try to provide input into which options you have found to be the most effective. While your boss ultimately decides which solutions to choose, you can provide the tools to make the best possible choice.

“Focus your conversation on concrete examples of your idea’s benefits,” Amy Gallo writes at the Harvard Business Review. “If you have tested your approach on a small scale with good results, share that information.”

Instead of your boss viewing you as someone who always brings them problems, you can build a reputation as someone who puts out fires.

Plan How You Are Going to Communicate the Problem

No one looks forward to delivering bad news. However, if you can deliver the message clearly and professionally, then you can show your strength in crisis situations.

Sharlyn Lauby encourages readers to practice exactly how they want to deliver bad news. Focus on your word choice so you can convey the exact message you need to. Even if this means practicing in the elevator on the way to meet with your manager, you can save yourself the embarrassment of accidentally throwing someone under the bus or causing chaos from poorly chosen words.

Follow a Clear Formula to Deliver the News

Hallie Crawford explains that there’s a set professional process for breaking bad news:

  • First, state what that bad news is clearly and concisely.

  • Next, offer a sentance or two to explain why this bad thing happened.

  • Finally, pause and let your manager decide what information he or she needs next.

After the initial explanation, your manager might want to learn more about why the problem occurred, or move past that and focus on how to fix it. If you’re prepared to answer both of these parts, then the worst is over, and you can move forward based on their direction.

“If the news is serious, people take in bad news only gradually,” Lynn Gaertner-Johnston explains at Syntax Training. “After they have grasped the essential message, they will want details.” This is why the formula is important. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, your manager may need time for the issue to completely sink in.

Don’t Call Out Your Manage for Their Errors

“It’s important for you to help the recipient save face when the bad news involves a potential threat to their self-esteem,” Susan K. Whitbourne writes.

This is one of the principles of politeness theory. If your boss requested something that lead to a major problem, then he or she likely doesn’t want to focus too long on the cause of the issue. Again, by focusing on solutions you won’t end up in the awkward position of calling out your boss for his or her mistakes.

Avoid Negative Body Language, Defenses, and Emotional Responses

When delivering bad news, it’s easy to subconsciously sabotage your presentation if you’re too nervous going into the meeting. So, as you enter the meeting, try to process out any feelings of defensiveness.

“When we're upset by the bad news we're going to deliver to others, it's easy to put walls up that are hard for others to breach,” Peter Economy writes.

Emotional walls, failure to admit fault, and blaming others are just a few defenses people put up. All of these emotions can hinder your ability to professionally and strategically solve problems.

Take a Deep Breathe Before the Meeting Starts

It’s amazing how much your emotions affect how you communicate. Just by labeling a meeting or conversation as “difficult,” your mind will start sending stress and worry signals through your body.

Will Yakowicz at Inc. encourages people to approach a difficult conversation as if it were any other discussion. This will limit the subconscious bodily stress factors that could make your presentation go awry.  

Don’t Play the Blame Game

As you explain the problem, resist the urge to cast blame on others. Look for solutions, not scapegoats.

“The root cause has many tentacles — your boss understands that,” Karin Hurt writes. “Own the problem, and don’t point fingers at other departments, leaders, or your team.”

You and your boss can work through who is to blame after the problem is solved. Right now, the focus should be on proactively taking steps to fix the issue.

How you handle yourself in a crisis says a lot about who you are. If you are able to deliver news calmly and professionally, then your manager will likely turn to your for solutions in the future.