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How to Break Bad News to your Manager – Like a Pro

Estimated reading time: 2 mins

Managers expect bad news. In fact it’s what they’re paid for. ‘Management’ concerns the good, the bad and indifferent. So breaking bad news to your manager is a standard part of our jobs.

So why do so many of us dread it?

Things go wrong. Period. No business is built on plain-sailing! Business is a rollercoaster of successes, crises, triumphs and failures.

It just sucks when the bad news comes off your desk. Not only do we have to deal with the problem itself, but we’re probably worried if will have a job to come into the next day. We have to put aside that last point, or it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Delivery

Every manager expects to be handed bad news; the way the news is communicated, and what is being done about it, makes the difference.

When delivering bad news, it’s no use being meek about it. Deliver it straight, and to the point. The more clear and direct you are about the problem, the better the quality of the message and the greater the probability that it will be understood clearly. In my experience, it’s much more effective to state the problem first, and then describe how the problem arose, rather than the other way around. A long story first will confuse, as your manager will be thinking ‘why are you telling me all this?

It’s important to also give an appropriate assessment of the impact of a problem, not just state the problem. I used the word appropriate as you must be careful appear patronizing at a time of heightened emotions. For example, your company website might be down: a statement such as ‘… and it means we will lose orders…‘ is perhaps too obvious.

But in some cases, it might not be so obvious to your manager to the consequences of the problem.

So for example, a problem statement such as ‘One of the lavatories is blocked’ might seem too trivial to bother your manager with, but adding ‘and we have the safety inspector visiting today’ might change things a little.

The Resolution

I have a saying – if I am part of the problem, then I have to be part of the solution. It might be a bit cliché but it is bang on the money.

What managers want to know is what can be done about it – even if they know this themselves. The important thing is to show that you’ve taken responsibility for the problem and that you’re ready to take action. Even if it is to delegate the resolution tasks to other people. Bosses won’t welcome you dumping the problem at their desk and walking away.

But just a second… Your manager has probably got to that position because of skills and experience in managing. Whilst its important to show you’re a person of action and will lead the charge of the solution, you might want to give you manager an opportunity to steer you. This isn’t about giving deference, instead it’s about leveraging the know-how of your manager.

What’s your story?

Have you given bad news to your manager and survived to tell the tale? Share your story by leaving a comment below.

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This post is part 1 of 8 in the series Managing Your Manager

About the author /


Simon is a creative and passionate business leader dedicated to having fun in the pursuit of high performance and personal development. He is co-founder of Applied Change, a Business Change consultancy based in the UK. Simon is also an Ambassador for Gloucestershire business. Simon is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development.

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