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How to Bring Bad News to Your Boss

In most jobs, you have to learn how to integrate your leader into your plans. Unless you own or run the place yourself, part of your job is to help leadership be successful while you’re taking care of your own responsibilities. This holds true until you’re ready to walk away from the job, whether you love or respect your boss or not.

Bringing the Bad News

So how can you effectively deliver bad news or uncomfortable truths — stuff your boss probably doesn’t want to hear?

If you only bring a complaint, it’s easier to dismiss as personal fussiness. Instead, try presenting a proposal or a hypothetical, so she can incorporate it into her own thinking about the subject. And gear your content so she’ll find it inherently interesting: perhaps she likes puzzles, dramatic problems, or data analysis.

Try delivering hard evidence in a soft way, like it’s something new and speculative: “Hey, Boss, check this out with me, would you?” If you can engage her thinking, you may be able to build a better solution together, without making her feel defensive.

Be a Team Player, First and Foremost

Don’t say what you’re not trying to do: “I’m not trying to criticize; I don’t mean to complain.” Your boss will hear the opposite and think you protest too much. And no matter how much data you may have to back up your point of view, be careful not to express blanket frustration about the people above your pay grade. You won’t look cooperative or open to compromise.

Instead, make it clear that you’re on her team and you care about her results — that’s why you’re consciously stepping over the line to talk with her. Say something like: “I’m here to support your mission and goals. I’m happy that you have us working on A, B, and C, and I’m doing everything I can to achieve your objectives. I want you to know that X isn’t working the way you planned/expect. You may already be aware of some of the things I want to bring to your attention, but I hope you’ll give me some leeway to express my concerns.”

If the Wounds Are Internally Inflicted

It can be particularly hard to bring bad news when it’s the result of an internal problem. Maybe implementation hiccupped, or your colleagues have a different interpretation of your boss’s intentions. In these cases, you may need more of a preamble to the facts of the situation:

“I’m concerned that we’re not getting the results you want, and not because of adverse market conditions, customer preferences, etc., but because of our own actions/errors. Perhaps the direction you’ve given is not well understood, or some decision makers still have reservations.

“At any rate, even though everyone seems to agree in concept, our work processes are not well coordinated. The people doing the work seem to be going off in different directions. It’s possible that the other leaders are agreeing in their meetings with you, but they’re not communicating those commitments to their teams. Perhaps the execution is going awry because of conflicting or unclear direction.

“Here are some things I’ve observed, and here’s the updated schedule that shows how far off we’re getting…”

An Added Caution

It’s smart to recognize that your boss may actually already know what you think is so eye opening, and may not believe the changes you’re proposing are necessary, or want to implement your recommendations. Or your boss may disagree with your facts or your interpretation of them. It’s certainly legitimate to ask for an explanation of why your approach isn’t desirable. But either way, your boss will still expect your loyalty, commitment, and full performance.

Onward and upward,


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