The Art of Delivering Bad News

Checklist of commandments for delivering bad news

How to say what you need to say when bad news bears out.

We’ve all been there: You’ve made good progress on the first leg of your road trip, and you begin mentally checking the boxes of what you did before you left. Locked the door, check. Closed the windows, check. Turned the gas off on the stove…check? One my most memorable check-the-box stories was a trip I took with my family to Vail, Colorado for the weekend where we stayed in a property owned by some of our dear friends.

When we packed up to leave their home, we wanted to take extra care that everything was left just like we found it. Like good boy scouts, we “left no trace” and locked the front door. As we prepared for the journey back to Denver over Vail Pass, it was snowing heavily. If you’ve ever driven over that pass, you know it’s a tedious chain of hairpin turns all the way up and all the way down toward the city. When you throw heavy snow into the mix, it becomes a treacherous, white-knuckles-on-the-steering-wheel slog.

As we finally reached the top at our halfway point, my wife, Sue, said to me, “I’m not completely sure I shut off the stove back at the house.” I’ll admit my response to this update wasn’t good: “Are you kidding me?!” I was really upset because I realized I would have to turn around, go back down the mountain, and then drive up and down the mountain again. It also didn’t help that I was imagining my friend’s house going up in smoke. In Sue’s defense, I’m sure she was trying to convince herself that the gas was off as we made each turn slowly up the mountain pass. When uncertainty took over, she faced the facts and delivered the bad news.

As business leaders, we all have to deliver bad news from time to time. Just like a road trip, you try to check all the boxes with everyone on your team as performance progresses through each quarter, but sometimes a hiccup is discovered. It’s better to turn around and make it right, or else you face a long road ahead of uncertainty, wondering when that hiccup will turn into something larger and become insurmountable.

Facing uncertainty by sugar coating facts or side stepping the truth will only prolong agony for you and your team. Instead, try following these “ten commandments for delivering bad news” offered by Robert Bies, a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. His guidelines can help you cut anxiety short and put you on a path to constructive communication.

Let’s look at Bies’ first three commandments in this post:

The First Commandment:
Thou shalt always treat people with respect and dignity.”

In this passage, Bies explains that we’re not just communicating bad news, we are communicating it with human beings. I couldn’t agree more. During tough times, my experience has shown me that when you share troubling news with humility and openness, your team will surprise you with how positively they respond.

Communicating with respect, focusing on follow-through and remembering the numerous audiences affected by bad news represent a strong foundation for the art of delivering it.
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The Second Commandment:
“Thou shalt always follow up and follow through.”

This guidance actually describes how we turned Prologis around when we fell from spectacular heights on Wall Street to one of the lowest performers in the stock market. We knew the only way to earn the trust of our stakeholders after sharing bad news was to report back early and often about our corrective measures. By showing progress, you have a chance to transform bad news into good and give everyone the confidence you can rebound, which I’m happy to report we did!

The Third Commandment:
“Thou shalt always remember your multiple audiences.”

I like this passage from Bies because we need to be reminded how bad news affects more than the primary audience who may be the focus of your immediate concern. Borrowing from my example above, our falling stock price at Prologis not only affected our shareholders, but it affected our employees, clients and vendors. Don’t overlook who needs to be included in your messaging as you move on from past mistakes.

Communicating with respect, focusing on follow-through and remembering the numerous audiences affected by bad news represent a strong foundation for the art of delivering it. But the path to becoming even stronger in your bad-news encounters can be found in a few more commandments, which I’ll share with you in my upcoming post.

I’ll explore the importance of offering solutions, justifying yourself and offering hope. Speaking of hope, for those of you who are curious if the gas was on or off when we circled back on that treacherous drive, thankfully it was off. A good reminder that bad news can have silver linings. Watch for more about hope in the next installment.

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