Communicating ‘Bad News’

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A number of emails led me to write this article on communicating ‘Bad News’. This is a common issue in business, particularly in the western world where short-term results are king. Passing on information that is considered to be unwelcome fills a lot of people with angst and dread, so I want to address this phenomenon head on.

So why did I put the words in ‘quotes’? Well ‘Bad News’ is really just a concept. I think no news is ‘bad’ if it means that we can do something about it and make a change for the positive. The news may be ‘disappointing’, but I ask if you didn’t hear the news at all, wouldn’t that be worse?
I’m tackling this in two ways. One is to look at how such bad news is delivered and the other is looking at how it is received. I’ll then offer some advice on how to minimize the fallout from these situations by some stakeholder management.

Delivering ‘Bad News’
Delivering disappointing information is not easy, as it often involves the creation of negative energy in delivery. It’s often sugar-coated, that is, given in non-direct ways or wrapped up in other neutral news. Delivering disappointing news can be a mind game, and therefore stressful. Many people aren’t experienced enough and to be frank, resilient enough to cope with this pressure. What frequently results is avoidance or a mumbled, poorly delivered message.
However, it’s my opinion that disappointing news should be delivered straight and untainted – delivered with confidence. Communication, regardless of content, should be delivered unambiguously, clearly and concisely if it is to have the correct meaning. So why should disappointing content be any different?
Delivering disappointing news should also be delivered with context. Disappointing news should address the potential outcome as well as the problem itself. What I mean is that if, for example, a project will slip by a week, then the deliverer should discuss the implications, in this example describe the impact on other projects and the extra cost of manpower. Adding some commercial perspective is always advised should it be appropriate.
Delivering disappointing news also gives the deliverer an opportunity to offer alternatives or rectification activities to deal with the problem. Don’t be shy in doing this. Managers more often than not want solutions, not problems. Obviously any such opportunities need to be grounded, so some groundwork with colleagues might be necessary.
In the end, delivering disappointing news is a facet of ones responsibility. So it must be done with responsibility. A poorly delivered, watered down message doesn’t show this responsibility and could ones credibility.

Receiving ‘Bad News’
Receiving disappointing news is part of communication. It’s also part of ones responsibility. So often I’ve seen tempers flare and toys thrown out of the proverbial cot. It’s also a mind game and like the delivery, some folk are not always experienced enough to cope with receiving disappointing news. Some managers quite honestly see this as an opportunity to impress their positional power or exert some bullying tactics. Never have I seen this be fruitful in the long run.
Receiving disappointing news, in some ways, is a gift. It’s a means of getting information that challenges or confirms assumptions or ideas. Disappointing news can avert disaster. If you can see it that way then you have can create positive energy to overcome the problem. I am not advocating ‘being soft’, or overly tolerant of failure. I’m also not advocating being OK with incompetence. However dealing with those things is part of the solution.

Minimizing fallout
If you have disappointing news that needs to be communicated, then have a clear message, understand the implications of it and think of ways to overcome the problem. Validate any facts. And then pause for thought. A key bit of advice is to ‘socialize’ the news first before taking this formal. E.g. try taking the news to your manager one on one rather than delivering it around a meeting table. This will avoid potential embarrassment! Open a discussion rather than an argument. Despite what I’ve written above about receiving bad news, your manager might not have read it! Think about a potential way of engaging with the receiver in an environment where any outburst of negative energy is contained.

I’m hoping this article helps you deal with these tricky situations. If you’d like to discuss this with me then email me on

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