Let’s face it. Delivering bad news to the team can be one of the most difficult moments for a project manager.
The reasons could be many:
- Acquisition of the company,
- Shutting down the project,
- A key member quitting,
- Reduction in budget,
- Change of PM,
or something else.
This is one of the situations where the communication skills of a project manager are tested.
Several years ago, one of my projects was to build a state-of-the-art product in the Medical domain using the latest technology stack.
The team members couldn’t have been happier working with this delightfully supportive customer, feeling a sense of building the next big thing.
Then one day, the bomb was dropped.
The customer called up to say that his investors had pulled out, and he had no other option than to close down the project.
I had to be the one to deliver bad news to the team.
I didn’t know much better, so I decided to give a hint to the team without ‘announcing’ the news.
First with the key members, and to percolate it down.
After a couple of days, I decided to call up the team for an open meeting and tell them that the direction of the product had changed, and we were looking to turn the back-end code into re-usable software components.
This was true indeed. The customer had decided to convert code into reusable components that he could sell to another player in the industry that he wanted to team up with in the future.
We told the team that the customer wanted to wind down the project, owning to the investors’ decision. We also told that the hard work we’d put in will not go to waste; the reusable components will be used in another similar solution soon.
The team, to their credit, was most understanding, and none took it badly.
Although they didn’t get to see the commercial success of their product, they knew that their work did not go waste.
Was this the right approach to communicating the news?
I don’t know, quite honestly.
Could there have been a better approach to communicating?
At that moment, the way we chose seemed most logical.
Few thumb rules to consider
1. Deliver the facts objectively—but only relevant facts. Everyone need not know everything.
2. Keep emotions out of the discussion. Be sensitive and thoughtful. When someone gets emotional, try to gently steer away the discussion to objectivity.
3. Communicate any such information face-to-face. If members are in geographically different locations, video conferences might be prudent. Phone and emails are a strict no-no. People would need reassurance, and it is best delivered in person.
4. Make sure everyone gets the same message. Whether you talk to people individually or in groups or as a single gathering—everyone must get the same understanding.
5. Always have the solution in place. And if the situation is such that there is no solution possible, explain what you are doing to lessen the impact.
6. Make the communication two-way. Do more listening and less talking during these discussions. In the end, summarize and highlight the positive points.
7. Dip-stick periodically to check the impact and if you need to take any other appropriate action.
In general, there are 4 ways to break the bad news to the team.
I do not recommend one over the other—you would be the best judge of it depending on the need of the moment, dynamics of the situation, maturity of the team, and possible consequences of using one way over the other.
Again, there are many possible approaches, and the ones below are based on my personal understanding and experience.
Option 1: Drop the bomb
Not suitable for most occasions.
This is the easiest, and possibly most damaging way of announcing the news. Call a team meeting, and tell everyone on the face. Simple.
Can create morale issues, though. Or, relief—depending on the situation!
Some situations demand that you do not delay the news, which would otherwise reach the team anyway.
Then it is better to communicate quickly through official means. News such as a Merger or Acquisition may leak from other departments and feed the grapevine in no time. Any delay would only worsen the situation, and you need to act quickly.
The best way is to use the ‘sandwich’ approach.
That is, first give good news, then the bad, and end with good news (or, the positive side of the situation).
What is being done about the situation also needs to be highlighted.
If the news is that a key architect is leaving, for instance, the interim arrangement could be for an architect from another project to spend some time taking care of project needs here, while you are identifying a replacement.
What if there is no good news?
Every situation will have some positive aspects:
- An acquisition might mean better positions for key people and stock options for everyone
- The project getting closed might mean that some of the team members get to ‘start’ new projects with a better role for them.
That positive side could be the good news.
Sometimes, you may want to tell key people all there is to know about the situation and the rest of the team only a small part that impacts them. Use your judgment. Not everyone needs to know everything there’s to know.
Option 2: Silence is golden(?)
Just don’t tell anyone anything. Hope things will improve.
This can, in many a situation, actually be the worst thing to do.
This can also be an interim strategy till more information is available to tackle the situation.
The economy of the country that most of the business comes from might be going down, or there could be a political situation.
While the strategy to negate the impact could be to quickly diversify into other countries, and something that could be immediately worked upon, the team may not need to know it right away.
If there is no immediate and direct impact of the situation to the team, it is probably better not to communicate it, while the risk mitigation is underway.
Option 3: Pause and Play
Give out a few hints, but reassure that ‘if such a case happens’ things will be managed, and explain how.
Let people digest it and possibly mentally be prepared for the worse.
After a few days, give a little more, or all the news.
Option 4: Let’s solve this together
Handle the situation like true crisis management.
Identify the pros and cons.
Ask the team to be objective about the situation.
Seek their input to manage the impact and get them to be part of the solution.
With this approach, the team that is part of the solution gets over the adversity more easily and channelizes their energy in tackling the situation. The applicability of this approach depends on the level of maturity of the team as well.
No one wants to deliver the bad news or to hear one.
But like all jobs, project management also comes with the downside of dealing with such situations. While prevention may not be possible when causes are out of our sphere of control, we can be proactive to identify any symptoms and be quick to prepare a plan to manage the damage.
What are some of the ways you have found to deal with situations when you had to deliver bad news to the team?
Image courtesy: hikingartist