3 Keys to Writing Bad News

Hey Peter, ...


We’ve all been there. Bad news for a well-meaning team member. Whether it’s through a fault of their own or the market moved against them, we’ve sat at the keyboard wondering how to tell them.

Times like these are the core tasks of leaders and the way you respond to them speaks volumes about the culture of your organization. How do you deliver bad news in a way that reinforces your vision instead of merely demoralizing your team?

Here are three keys to craft a message that refocuses and empowers a person to succeed again.

1. Safe is not enough. This comes up all the time in coaching with young executives. Anodyne messages sacrifice clarity and invite rebuttal. To deliver bad news, you must not soft-sell the degree or scale of the problem, just as you can’t minimize the change required to fix the problem.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of this was from the business head of a major financial firm addressing her senior leadership team. The business had attempted to build a new product to rival its competitors, but a major issue had erupted in full view of the public and their shareholders.

The leader addressed the issue immediately, resisting any urge to couch the problem in unrelated successes at the firm. The issue was called by its proper name, and while the responsible parties were not directly named, it was made clear those responsible would not be with the firm any longer.

The way forward was equally clear, if a bit unsettling. The firm shrunk that business to appease shareholders and reallocated capital to higher margin businesses. A line was drawn under it and a clear path was laid.

This brings us to the second key.

2. Return to vision. Bad news often focuses on the individuals involved. Stigma is unproductive and encourages political infighting. Smart people make mistakes on the way to growth and innovation. The key is to reiterate the focus for them and the rest of your team.

Returning to your vision often explains why the failure occurred in the first place; at one point, it probably aligned with your firm’s goals.

Returning to your vision often explains why the failure occurred in the first place; at one point, it probably aligned with your firm’s goals. Reading the failure into the longer narrative of your vision makes its a chapter in the bigger story, not just an isolated incident.

This has two key effects. First, it allows mistakes to be learned. Peter Drucker argued for reclassifying catastrophes as events to be anticipated and mitigated, refusing to let management write them off. Second, it rehabilitates those involved within the rest of the organization. A learning organization balances process and results and placing failure into context allows those involved to reconnect with their role in your vision.


3. State your opinion. Few things are more distracting than wondering what your boss thinks of you. A carefully worded statement of status refocuses on the issue and sets the tone for your relationship going forward.

Let’s look at both sides of this coin. You could trust someone less after a failure. If that’s the case, say so. Take it a step further and say why trust was lost. Return to your firm’s values. Most importantly, describe what trust-winning behavior would look like.

Your trust may be unchanged. Psychologically, being told no is only eclipsed by being told you’re wrong. If you separate the failure from the person’s actions, tell them why. In the same way as above, tell them what trust-damaging behavior would have looked like.

Stating your view prevents apathy and reduces doubt. Avoiding both frees headspace to focus on what’s most important: getting back to business.

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