How to Communicate Bad News to Leaders: Always Whisper First
Many people make a bad situation worse by not thinking about how to communicate bad news. Over the course of any career, project or even a task, sometimes bad things happen. Additionally, when they don’t happen there is potential for them to happen.
Psychologists attest that the bearer of bad news is often blamed for it, even when they are not responsible for it, even when the cause is beyond human control.
Given this, how you share bad news should be strategically thought out and you should never surprise or shock a leader or stakeholder with bad news. You want to ease them into it. One effective way to ease them into it as whispering.
By “whispering” I mean communicating to the leader or stakeholder the needed information under casual circumstances before the information is publicly or widely known. Whispering means you intentionally “bump into” the stakeholder somewhere. To do this effectively, you need to know the stakeholder’s habits and/or schedule.
Knowing where stakeholders park, as well as their arrival and departure times, always served me well with many opportunities to casually bump into a stakeholder. Additionally, I develop and maintain strong relationships with the administrative staff of high level leaders, who will provide me valuable intel about the leaders whereabouts and sometimes more importantly the leaders mood.
Strong relationships with the administrative staff of high level leaders is even more important when they are not in your location. These relationships can be leveraged to get a casual call or a handwritten note to a remote high level stakeholder.
Whispering also is very important when you need to prepare stakeholders for a negative risk event that may happen. Letting them know ahead of time of the potential event, your plans to prevent the event, and how you will deal with the event’s consequences should it occur minimizes any negative reaction and/or response when the event actually occurs. When stakeholders accept or add to your plan for the risk event, it becomes a shared risk—one that minimizes the likelihood of stakeholder overreaction if the risk event materializes. Additionally, a shared risk establishes a positive framework for development and/or execution of the contingency plan to deal with the materialized risk.
You have done a good job of communication when risks on your project are viewed as shared between you and the stakeholders and not you alone.
For example, if it looks like your supplier is going to be late and delay a critical milestone. It is best to bump into Ms. Veri Powerful and after hello’s ask for a quick moment and say “On the xyz project, we have this supplier issue, if it materializes we will have this impact. We are doing A, B, C and D to prevent it and will do D, E, and F to deal with the impact if it happens. I will send you something that details this but wanted to give you a heads up."
This can be much more effective than getting on Ms. Veri Powerful’s schedule, if Ms. Powerful wants to talk about it formally, she will so respond after the casual conversation. Additionally, often better decisions are reached during casual conversations as compared to formal meetings because it is less political and grandstanding is minimized.
Adapted from The Handbook of Program Management
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