It’s bad enough when you have bad news, but bungling how you deliver it can make it even worse. Managers distance themselves from sharing bad news too often – having others deliver and take the fall for it – which is never okay. When there’s bad news that happens on your watch, you have to own it, explain it and make a plan to fix it.
When I was at eBay, it was up to me to call Meg Whitman personally anytime there was a technology issue. Since this was eBay in 1999, it meant that I called her in the middle of the night all the time. Meg’s husband, a neurosurgeon, always answered expecting it to be a patient with an emergency. I would say, “No one’s dying, just my site. Can I talk to Meg?” I knew that she wouldn’t appreciate receiving the call from someone else; it had to be me who told her what was happening and me who was ready to figure out the next step.
As a leader, it’s your responsibility to own delivering bad news. You must put it into context and explain what it means. For example, you can’t just say, “We missed our sales targets” without detailing why it happened and how you will make up for it. Additionally, there needs to be good news sprinkled in with it. Your job is not over just because you told the truth – you need to offer your path for recovery as well.
The next time you have to impart bad news, consider these 12 steps:
1. Bad news doesn’t get better with age, so don’t wait
2. Stay calm and focused
3. Determine how bad it is
4. Figure out who needs to know
5. If it’s seriously bad, consult with your lawyers and advisors, and listen to them
6. Decide what to disclose; do not overreact and do not under-react
7. Make sure the information comes from you
8. Tell the truth – admit to the situation and own up to the seriousness of it
9. Share what you are doing to resolve the issue and move ahead
10. Set expectations
11. Don’t expect anyone to be happy with very bad news
12. Do ask for help and ask what else they think you can be doing
No one is happy in a bad news situation. It’s hard to own and share bad news, and it’s hard to receive it. I always hated making emergency calls or writing negative update emails to Meg, but it made me want to figure out what we could do so I could do that less. And we did. We improved and I had fewer bad updates to deliver. Even better, we had more good news to share. I always let the team share that because they deserved it, and it always inspired us to garner more.