How to Tell Stakeholders the Bad News

45658028_e1ff8c8a21_oMaybe one of these situations sounds familiar…

You’ve just found out your resources have been slashed by 30 percent, but the sponsor won’t budge on the workload. More with less is the new normal.

After nearly a year of development on a technical system to integrate several disparate processes within finance, end user testing results show a very low usability and adoption rate. Leadership is demanding a solution. Now.

 The growth strategy your team implemented for your company’s new innovative product that, according to consumer research, will to take the marketplace by storm is failing badly. The project sponsor has mandated a complete change in direction but has cut your budget by 25 percent while accelerating your timeline.

Today’s business climate requires agile, quick change to stay competitive. The speed, reach and consumer options now available demand that organizations be nimble and creative and able to adjust quickly to shifting market conditions.

The upside of the ability to change on a dime is market edge. The downside? Agile, rapid change affects people, which can be perceived by stakeholders as bad, difficult or challenging.

And what about the situations at the beginning of this post? They likely will be viewed as bad news to a team because it will require quick change on top of the other million other things they also need to do.

Change allows organizations to re-invent themselves, move in new directions and recover from misfortune; but in the project trenches change is at risk for being viewed as a disturbance to their (and our) way of seeing and doing things. Large or small, change of any size makes an impact. And guess who is on the hook for breaking the bad news?

Yep, that would be you, project manager.

Learn more about this topic in the MPUG webinar, “Delivering Bad News in Good Ways for Your Project,” available on-demand.

So let’s consider this. When giving and receiving news about change, how do you and your project team members view it?

  • As interruption to stability or the start of a journey?
  • As a response to a disturbance or a path to innovation?
  • As a problem or an opportunity?

If you and the stakeholders tend to see change as a negative, then it will be tempting to postpone, avoid and stress about it. But the trees are still in the forest even if we’re not there to see them. The bad news will still be there even when we don’t address it. And the longer your response is put off, the higher the risk that the situation will go off the rails.

Three Steps for Delivering Bad News

When you have to deliver bad news to stakeholders, it’s important to prepare for it because of the likely emotional impact.

In my book, Delivering Bad News in Good Ways, I describe a three-step method for turning difficult conversations into purposeful dialogue, positive outcomes and focused results. The “SED Method,” as I call it, is a process I’ve created over the years while working with companies and government agencies around the world.

SED: Separate, Evaluate and Deliver

Before jumping into delivering bad news, we must separate the people from the problem, which is similar to the principle noted in Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, the masterful book by Roger Fisher and William Ury. However, it’s a little trickier when it comes to delivering bad news.

Project support is driven from some level of emotional investment. Contrary to popular belief and supported by research there is a point when the paycheck is not what compels us to do our best in our work.

Whether we are driven to help others, innovate, learn a new skill, collaborate or get recognition, these things are fueled by emotional investment. With studies from groups such as Gallup, we’re learning that intrinsic rewards (personal interest, enjoyment of a task and learning growth) are a much stronger motivator in the workplace than extrinsic rewards (pay, benefits or stock options).

Whatever the motivation, every project manager hopes to have that intrinsic, high level of passion and commitment on their team — but it comes with a price: The higher the emotional investment people have in the project, the harder time they’ll have bouncing back from bad news about it.

Why is it so hard for stakeholders to get past “bad” and just get the work done?

The globalization paradigm means information can move 15,000 miles instantly. That means people are hit with roughly 11 billion bits of information at once. Of that we have awareness of about 40 of them, but our capacity to process the information deeply is limited to around seven bits.

It’s this limited capacity that creates a cognitive load paradigm — an inability to adapt to change as rapidly as technology. The net-net is that it takes time for people to adapt to the change that companies need for projects to be delivered quickly.

When the team is in synch, excited and feeling empowered and the sky is the limit and energy and enthusiasm are running high, it is clear that the heads and hearts of the stakeholders are engaged. While we want that, the old cliché comes to mind: “The higher it goes, the harder it falls.” Bad news for a team like this can make or break it.

Prepping for delivering bad news

The tipping point for how stakeholders respond to bad news is the way you assess, frame, and share it. That’s what we address with the SED Method, which stands for “separate,” “evaluate” and “deliver.”

The separate step gives us a chance to investigate and collect the facts, opinions and details of the situation so we can act rather than react to challenging situations.

The evaluate step gives us time to sort through that information, determine what’s relevant and identify options in preparation for delivery of the bad news to the receiver. It’s in this step that you have a chance to evaluate your feelings, assess the feelings of others and identify options.

The deliver step helps to determine how best to craft and present the news in a way that can be heard. It also gut checks you on timing, materials and location.

The “Talk”

Preparing for the delivery of the bad news is the first step. The second step is the discussion that follows once you’ve share the bad news. The “talk” model outlined in the book gives you a brief process to follow to facilitate to next steps.

When it comes to delivering bad news, most of us tend to avoid it like the plague. We sweep it under the rug and put off dealing with it, but it’s always there — an ugly, festering lump deepening stress with each day it’s not addressed.

Facing up to bad news early and often is healthy for businesses, projects and life in general. As a project manager on the hook for facilitating and managing change related to your projects, the SED method offers a way to deliver bad news in a timely, thoughtful manner.

Delivering Bad News in Good Ways is available in ebook and paperback through Amazon.

A version of this article originally appeared on Alison Sigmon’s blog here.

Have your own technique for delivering bad news to stakeholders or your project team? Share it with the MPUG community below.

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Written by Alison Sigmon

Alison Sigmon is a longtime PMP-certified project manager, clinical therapist and business executive. She has led projects for software and user experience design; digital content strategy; brand design and development; marketing, advertising and communications strategy; business development and fundraising; video design and production; and ecommerce. Alison’s efforts focus on the behavioral side of project management and relationships. Delivering Bad News in Good Ways is Alison’s first book, and the first in a series on the subject. An avid distance runner, writer, hiker and traveler, Alison is a Gulf War veteran. Articles, presentations and training materials can be found at her website.

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