How to Present the (Inevitably) Bad News

Sooner or later we must each present bad news to someone in a position of authority. It’s just your luck.  It happens to all of us.  Projects are always planned for as a chain of best-case events, so they always run late and over-budget.  Things don’t proceed at a steady pace, either.  Bad news comes in lumps, and sooner or later you will be the one chosen to present it to senior management or a board of directors.  It’s lump in the throat time, so how can you get through it?First, know your audience. Groups of people, like individuals, have personalities.  Sometimes they are reasonable and sometimes they are not.  Some management groups or individuals will work with you to understand and address the problems, but some will want to distance themselves from the trouble and may do so by being hard on you.  Some just feel they have to look savvy and t0ugh, and won’t mind demonstrating it “on your hide.” Reputations precede people, and if you are in close contact with coworkers and others in the organization you may be able to get a sense of what you are facing before you ever walk into that room.  Learn as much as you can in advance about the current situation, not only for the organizations involved but for the individuals.  Try to know who is on your side and who will be a help to you before you go in.

Do your homework in advance. Make sure you have a detailed understanding of the issue in question, any approaches that have been tried to solve or mitigate the issue, and the details of how those attempts worked out.  Be prepared to present the details including potential approaches to a solution, and to be specific about your suggestions to the management group.

See if you can brief any of the group privately in advance. You will learn more about the individual and may get some important insights into the group, any political angles involved, and the facts around the issue in question.  You will also reduce the chance that any of the group will be surprised, and give those with whom you speak a chance to think the issue through in advance, which may possibly unearth new information or approaches of value.  Sometimes this may bring new resources to bear on the problem that may reduce or avoid the need for the presentation altogether.

If you are made a scapegoat, keep your composure and take the heat gracefully. Remember that taking the heat with grace and thinking on your feet are very important skills, and that the issue is not you, no matter if someone is trying to pin it on you. Always remember that it may be a political advantage to a manager to pin the problem on you, thereby protecting her- or himself, and that they may appreciate your taking the heat off of them and may reward you later.  Scapegoat theory says that graceful scapegoats are the last to be let go during tough times because, without the scapegoat, the manager has to take the heat her- or himself.

When the issue is especially tough or the audience is unprepared to hear about it be creative and tactful. Don’t delay getting to the point too long, but check to make sure your audience has the background to understand it and provide context for the issue you are going to present so it is clear to the audience when you present it.  As an example of a creative approach, you can open with the Gloria Steinem quote: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

People and groups tend to handle bad news in predictable ways. Recognize that boards of directors are comprised of people, and people need to go through the 5 step grieving process when dealing with bad news.  Often the denial phase doesn’t last as long as the anger, and the bargaining phase may be productive if focused on a solution.  Depression and acceptance are the responsibility of each individual (well, it all is ..).  A person may go through as few as two of the stages, and may ping-pong back and forth between stages during the process, so anger and bargaining may seem concurrent until some resolution is reached.

Involve the audience in the solution, if that is appropriate. Since we are discussing presenting bad news to a senior management group, you can expect that at least some of the group have personal interests in the issue, and you have a chance to involve them in working on a solution.  Clueless group members may act as if crucifying you is going to solve the problem, but the more savvy in the group will know better, and will resist the impulse to “shoot the messenger”.  Most will be interested in hearing what has been done to address the issue to date, how preliminary efforts have worked out, and how they can be part of achieving a solution.

Follow up on your presentation. Record the results of the meeting and issue minutes including the next steps that were agreed to in the meeting, and recap the meeting in a letter or email to the group members and other interested parties if meeting minutes aren’t already distributed, or even if they are – you may have your own take on the issue or want to provide details not in the minutes.  Do what you can to enable the solution to the problem by communicating with key stakeholders, keeping up on progress on the issue, and taking any needed steps promptly to resolve it in the best possible way.  Be prepared to revisit the group for a follow-up presentation or post-mortem review of the solution, and to discuss the potential for the problem to arise again as well as any lingering effects of the problem or its solution.

Bad news and the need to present it to concerned groups, including your senior management, are a fact of life. If you can become good at presenting the tough issues under tough circumstances you will significantly increase your value to the organization, and will gain skills that will help you in both your private and work lives.  Always keep in mind that your audience is comprised of individual, fallible humans who will have standard human reactions to bad news:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.  While it isn’t always possible to come out of such meetings unscathed, you can maximize the chance of a good solution to the problem you are presenting, minimize the damage to yourself, and maximize your value to the organization with careful and unemotional planning and execution of your “bad news” presentations.

Best of luck, and I welcome your comments. – Tim

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