4 Ways To Deliver Bad News To The Team


Deliver bad newsLet’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 – shutting down the project, acquisition of the company, key member leaving, and so on. The impact of this news on the team, and thus its morale, depends more on the way news is delivered than the cause itself.

This is one of the situations where the communication skills of a project manager are tested.

Several years ago, one of the teams I was leading was building a state-of-the-art product in medical domain using bleeding-edge technologies. Team members couldn’t have been happier working with this delightfully friendly customer, feeling a sense of building the next big thing.

Then one day the bomb was dropped.

Customer called up to say that his investors had pulled out and he had no other way 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 couple of days, calling up the team for an open meeting and told that the direction of the product had changed and we are 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 he wanted to team up with in future.

We told the team that customer wanted to wind-down owning to investor’s decision and that the hard work that they had put in will not go waste – the reusable components will be used in another similar solution soon.

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 communicate the news? I don’t know, quite honestly. Could there have been a better approach to communicate? Possibly. At that moment that way 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 into objectivity.
  3. Communicate any such information face-to-face. If members are in geographically different locations video conference 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 of listening and less of talking during these discussions. In the end summarize and highlight the positive points.
  7. Do a dip-stick periodically to check the impact and if needed take appropriate action.

In general there are 4 ways to break the bad news to the team.

I do not recommend one over the other – it really depends on the need of the moment, dynamics of the situation, maturity of the team and possible consequences of using one way over the other.

1. Drop the bomb

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 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.

Here too, the best way is to use ‘sandwich’ approach.

That is, first give a good news, then the bad, and end with a good news. What is being done about the situation also needs to be highlighted. If the news is that key architect is leaving, for instance, the interim arrangement could be for an architect from another project spending sometime taking care of project needs here, while you could be identifying a new recruit.

What if there is no good news?

Every situation will have some positive aspects – an acquisition might mean better positions to key people and stock options to everyone; a project getting closed might mean that some of the team members get to ‘start’ new projects, meaning higher 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 issue and the rest of the team only small portion that impacts them.

2. Silence is golden(?)

Just don’t tell anyone anything. Hope things will improve.

This can, in many a situation, 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.

3. Pause and Play

Give out 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 few days give a little more, or all the news.

4. Let’s solve this together

Handle the situation like true crisis management. Identify pros and cons. Ask the team to be objective about the situation – seek their inputs to manage the impact and get them to be part of the solution.

While this approach has the benefit in that a team that is part of the solution gets over the adversity more easily, and channelize their energy in tackling the situation – applicability of this approach depends on the level of maturity of the team as well.

No one wants to deliver 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 employees?

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