“Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.” –Colin Powell
One of hardest tasks in management is how to give your boss bad news. After all, you want to show you’ve got everything under control, are making the right decisions, and are executing flawlessly.
As a leader, you want to shine the best light on your team—it’s hard when that light reveals a big mistake.
If you’ve got bad news, I’ve got some good news. Handling bad news well can increase your leadership credibility. Helping your team recover from bad news will help to them learn and grow.
Bad News the D.A.R.N. Way
Bad news is never easy. Here are 4 steps to share your news and accelerate the recovery.
Explain the situation and the root cause.
The biggest mistake most managers make is waiting too long to share the problem. Get your manager involved before the situation has mushroomed into an irrecoverable folly.
Share your truth directly in simple language, but don’t gush every detail you know. You know a lot about the scene; avoid the temptation to prove it. You don’t want your boss getting overly involved in the minutia. Unless you’re a big fan of more readouts and escalations, share what’s relevant and move on.
At the same time, avoid the temptation to bury the bad news with a lot of other good news, or communicate with so much ambiguity that you lose the message.
“I’ve had a bad day. We have a bit of a situation, and I need to fill you in. ________ happened … and now we have ______. When I dug in deeper I learned it was caused by _______ (behavior or situation, not the person.)”
Don’t be a blamer.
Resist the urge to blame others for the situation. The root cause has many tentacles—your boss understands that. Own the problem, and don’t point fingers at other departments, leaders, or your team.
With that said, ensure your team is part of fixing any of the mistakes they made. You fixing their mistakes will disempower, frustrate, and prevent learning. Recovering well after a screw-up is a great way to grow.
“I accept full responsibility. I should have been closer to this. Here’s how I can prevent a similar outcome next time _______________.”
Share your solution.
Here’s your opportunity to shine. If possible, come with the situation already entirely handled, including any peripheral preventive measures.
If the problem’s more complex have a recommended action plan for resolution. You may find it appropriate to include several options with pros and cons.
At the same time, if it’s not yet handled, don’t over-sell the solution. Executives are suspicious of rose-colored glasses. Even if you’re optimistic about the solution, speak to the fact that “early indicators” show the situation is fully resolved. Or, “you’re cautiously optimistic” that all the damage control efforts are working.”
“Here’s what we’ve already done__________ (it’s important to have something to say here).”
4. Next Steps
Share your plan and what you need.
Have a clear outline of your recommended next steps, contingencies and communications plan. Be specific with dates and accountable parties. This is also a great time to ask for the support you need. Be prepared to answer
If your boss will need to inform her boss, make it easy by crafting a bulleted executive summary. If others will need to be updated, present a format for ongoing updates and frequency.
“Here’s what I’m going to do next_______. I could use your help with ___________ (if needed.)”
No matter how darn bad your news is, you can turn the situation around through transparency and trust. Use your bad news to accelerate learning.
About Karin Hurt: Karin has a diverse background of executive leadership experience in sales, customer service, call centers, HR, merger integration, training and leadership development — the last 20 years of which have been with Verizon. She’s now leveraging that experience running her own leadership development practice, dedicated to helping companies create break-through results through rock-solid front-line leadership teams. Her award-winning blog, Let’s Grow Leaders, is a highly interactive community discussing practical leadership challenges. Her new book, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss: A practical guide to building a better relationship with your boss, is available on Amazon.
A note from Jesse: I am delighted to host this guest post by Karin Hurt, which illuminates one of the topics in her excellent new book. Overcoming an Imperfect Boss is an outstanding guidebook for tackling the most difficult situations that occur on a regular basis. Karin hits the real challenges head on, with straight talk and practical advice. You will feel like like you’re having a conversation with a trusted, wise friend. Helpful for leaders at all levels, I recommended it to senior leaders and sent a copy to my niece who recently entered the workforce. Companies should give this wonderful book to every new employee. It will save everyone a lot of grief.
Very useful post ! I am sure the book will be fantastic as well. The number of people who I have seen quit in the last few months because of their bosses is quite large. As they say, people leave bosses not companies. Yet not everyone has the luxury to just quit so I am sure this book will be a life saver for many ! Thanks Karin for writing and Thanks Jesse for hosting the blog.
Thanks very much. It’s very sad to see people “quit” their bosses, or become disatisfied and “quit” but stay. The supervisor relationship is so vital to job satisfaction, and takes real investment from both angles. People have real power to improve these relationships, and when done well, the impact on engagement and results is amazing.
Many years ago I used to be a “blamer” without realizing it. I would explain what they did wrong but make excuses for them. So I thought I was supporting my team. But when I took a new position, my new boss told me he didn’t want to hear what my team had done, he wanted to hear what I had done. I explained that I hadn’t done anything. He said THAT was the problem. I wasn’t providing leadership. It was of the best leadership lessons I learned – when your team makes a mistake, it is the leader who is accountable.
Frank, What a powerful story. Thanks so much for your transparency. The hardest lessons are when we think we are doing it right and learn there’s a better way. So glad your boss helped you become an even better leader. Thank you for paying that forward to others.
Totally agree. Every problem has an opportunity inside of it, even if it’s learning what not to do next time. Within #’s 1 and 2 I’d emphasize understanding or clarifying the problem without getting lost in the problem analysis, especially assessing blame. That usually builds resistance to, a) owning up, and b) thinking of creative solutions. Two questions you might ask in the initial analysis are; “Despite the mess, what worked?” (very few things are a complete failure), and “When we’ve faced a problem like this before, what worked to move us forward?” Moving from feeling helpless to hopeful is really critical in speeding up getting to #’s 3 and 4.
Alan, Thanks so much for extending the conversation. You raise great ways for the leader to respond…. I love, “Despite the mess, what worked?” It’s so easy to get caught up in the drama of the bad news, and over look positive learnings and momentum along the way.