If You Know How To Handle Bad News, You Can Handle Anything In The Work Place

Every now and then, we all have to break bad news. Whether it be to our managers, customers, investors, etc., the earlier you spot trouble and let them know, the better. But even so, fires can have a way of roaring to life unexpectedly.

What do you do when the opportunity to nip a major problem in the bud is long gone?

Stressful though they may be, these situations are among the best opportunities for separating yourself from the pack and rocketing up the career ladder.

Leaders are born during crises, while the rest shrink the moment sh*t hits the fan. All it takes is learning how to deliver bad news like a pro.

The two types of bad news:

There are two different types of bad news you may need to deliver:

  • The Negative Outlook: You see signs pointing to something becoming a problem, but the storm hasn't arrived yet. Depending on the situation, the problem might arrive in the near or distant future. Whether you're worried about a big client not renewing next month, or a Mars Rover that doesn't have all the instruments people want, you still have time to bring people in and decide how to respond.
  • The Sudden Shock: When an issue completely takes you and your team by surprise, it's too late to start planning for the worst. Regardless of whether you should have seen it coming or could never have anticipated it is temporarily irrelevant. The problem is here and you have to deal with it right now.

Crises have a way of flattening hierarchies because people look to anyone who can solve big problems when the chips are down. This is another reason why building specialized expertise early can really pay off. You never know when you're going to be called off the bench and thrust into the spotlight when the stakes are high.

My crash course in crisis management consists of two lessons: Know when to hold onto information, and never act surprised.

Know when to hold information

Informing your boss at the first sign of potential trouble may not be the right thing to do if you don't have a grip on the situation yourself. If there is one thing you can be sure of when you give someone bad news, it's that you are about to be asked a lot of questions.

If you don't have the information you need to satisfy the questions they'll have, then you are just going to leave the audience hanging. Sometimes you don't have any choice but to start messaging upwards; other times, you need to exercise judgment.

Here are a few common situations in which it may be better to hold off explaining a new problem to your boss:

  • The situation does not require immediate intervention (no laws broken, no lives at risk, no bank accounts being drained, etc.)
  • You're waiting on additional information that will make the scope of the issue clear
  • Your audience won't learn about the issue from other sources
  • It's possible that the situation can be fixed soon, allowing you to communicate both the problem and solution together
  • You suspect there may be related problems lurking that should be disclosed together

As Dallas Lawrence of Burson-Marsteller, one of the most respected PR firms in the world, points out, “The only thing worse than saying nothing is saying the wrong thing. Yes, you must move quickly during a time of crisis, but that doesn't give you a reprieve from fact-checking anything you plan to tell the public.”

Be the calmest person in the room

Two simple words can make a world of difference when navigating your way through a sudden shock: as expected. These words are your best friends when it comes to internal crisis communications.

Whatever the problem is, put it in broader context. People are less anxious when they understand the cause and effect dynamic, so give it to them. Most problems can be traced back to some decision from the past, but crises have a way of giving people amnesia. They forget the trade-offs and decisions they've made along the way because all they can focus on is the problem at hand.

Remind people of the decisions that they, and you, have made so that the issues can be recognized in the context of those decisions. You don't want to place blame. Rather, you want to show how everything is a logical consequence of something else.

“As expected, a portion of our customers are still adjusting to the changes we introduced into our pricing model last quarter,” sounds so much more professional than, “OMG the customers are freaking out.”

Presentation and poise matters. If you can be calm and collected in these situations, and provide the leadership people crave, your stock in the organization will soar. People remember and value the colleagues who exude grace under fire in these situations.

A version of this article was originally published on