As an economic developer, have you ever had to deliver bad news? I know that I have. From errors that we've made, to projects that didn't happen, to grants that we didn't win, and employees who've left suddenly, awful things happen.
When something terrible happens, I want to hold onto it. Even if it's not my fault, I don't want anyone to know. Naturally, I want to fix the problem and have a solution in place before anyone even notices. You could say that I fear anyone discovering that I'm not perfect. But this fear is unfortunate: not all bad news is my fault.
There's a saying that begins like this: "Bad news doesn't get better with time," and it's true.
Every time I've held onto bad news, it invariably gets worse before it gets better. Even worse, in most cases, holding onto the bad news made the problem worse.
The second part of that saying is: "Brief leadership early and often."
In that vein, here are four tips for delivering bad news:
- Deliver it quickly. Don't wait until you've solved the problem. If it's a critical issue, don't even wait until you fully understand the problem. Share what you know as soon as you know it. Not doing so wastes precious time.
- Don't bury the lede. If sharing via email, the problem itself should be the first sentence. You lose time and attention by making people search through a long preamble and explanation for what really matters. State the problem first.
- Give context, but no excuses. Once you've stated the bad news, give some background on how it happened and why (if you know).
- Offer potential solutions if you have them. If you don't, ask for help. The person receiving the news would much rather have you request assistance than to find out later that you needed it and didn't ask, thereby protracting the problem.
- Apologize, especially if you or your team's actions were responsible. Show empathy for the recipient having to deal with bad news.
- Once urgency has passed, reflect. What could you have done differently to prevent or react? We often neglect these chances to get better - don't miss the opportunity to improve.
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