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When a PM Must Communicate Bad News

Setting the Stage

Communication is a fuel that drives project success. In fact, various experts have claimed that communication is the most important skill for a PM. Obviously, this includes how a PM handles the sharing of bad news.

Bad news does happen on projects, and how you deliver it can make all the difference on your credibility and possibly your future. Keep in mind, bad news is like trash; the longer you delay taking any action on it, the greater the potential for stink. You should strive not to surprise anyone with bad news, unless you have an action plan to mitigate the problem or alternative solutions to share. You should also have a sensitive approach to revealing bad news, so that the recipients(s) will have greater respect for your thoughtfulness, honesty, and judgement. You might find that you will receive more support when the news is made public. The goal is to put bad news behind you as soon as possible, learn from it, and move on to complete your project. The bottom line—or golden rule—here is never let a problem grow or evolve!

When I first discover bad news about my project, I mentally step back and take a big deep breath to look at the big picture and how it will affect my whole project and organization. The problem may not be a concern that is everybody’s worry. For example, if a server is broken, not everyone is interested on what’s going on. However, if a deadline for your project has been moved up, it will affect everyone on the team. The main thing is to understand the degree of the problem. An amusing example of how to lessen bad news (or soften the blow) is provided in the following letter from a college student to her parents. Variations of this letter can be found on many websites.

Dear Mom and Dad, or should I say Grandma and Grandpa,

Yes, I am pregnant. No, I am not married yet since Larry, my boyfriend, is out of a job. Larry’s employers just don’t seem to appreciate the skills he has learned since he quit high school. Larry looks much younger than you Dad, even though he is three years older. I am quitting college and getting a job so we can get an apartment before the baby is born. I found a beautiful apartment above a 24-hour auto repair garage with good insulation, so the exhaust fumes and noise won’t bother us.

I’m very happy. I thought you would be, too.

Love, Ashley

P.S. There is no Larry. I’m not pregnant or getting married. I’m not quitting school, but I am getting a “D” in Chemistry. I just wanted you to have some perspective.

Depending on the bad news you are delivering, you may have an opportunity to put a humorous slant on the situation if you choose to. Humor could cause your audience to be more open to the ideas being presented and show them that not everything needs to be considered a downer. Having a sense of humor helps to create a connection between you and your audience while getting your point across. Using this technique tactfully could help defuse tensions after the news is stated and leave everyone a bit more understanding versus upset. Displaying a sense of humor also helps you to remain cool under pressure and to keep problems in perspective.

One quote that comes to mind is this: “It is my belief that you cannot deal with the most serious things in the world unless you understand the most amusing.” -Sir Winston Churchhill

Summary

A few years ago, I was managing a project for a client and a key player (the Oracle database administrator) resigned, so I had to work in a “frenzy” with Human Resources to get a qualified, full-time replacement ASAP. Fortunately, we found someone and had a smooth transition with little disruption to the project. When I informed the client on what happened and what we’d done about it, it helped to maintain their confidence in our team. Fortunately, the client was not part of our internal “frenzy.”

There are several methods that a PM can use in various situations or scenarios when discussing bad news with the client. For example:

  • Be prepared, which includes anticipating questions and being able to answer them.
  • Think carefully about the setting in which you share bad news.
  • Communicate the bad news face-to-face or through videoconferencing, if necessary.
  • Look for positives embedded in the bad news and deliver those first.
  • A sense of humor is ok, but tactful and don’t joke around.
  • Be calm.
  • Be honest.
  • Share the real facts and don’t sugarcoat them.
  • Remain objective.
  • Discourage emotional responses and work to maintain peace by being sensitive and thoughtful.
  • Allow a two-way dialogue, so everyone has a chance to share their thoughts, advice, and possible solutions as part of the going forward decision-making process.
  • Bring your own solutions or alternatives to solve the problem to the table.
  • Don’t give advice unless asked.
  • End the meeting on a positive note by discussing your follow-up and follow through, which should lead to renewed trust.

In some situations, a PM may choose to say nothing about bad news because they quickly took actions to rectify the issue(s). This practice may be useful if a PM is confident that things can be resolved quickly and effectively.

Your thoughts in the comment section below are appreciated.

Written by Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith has over four decades of experience as Senior PM/Program Manager. He retired from IBM having written four books and over four dozen articles (for example, PMI’s PM Network magazine and MPUG) on project management, and the systems development life cycle (SDLC). He’s been a member of PMI since 1998 and evaluates articles submitted to PMI’s Knowledge Shelf Library for potential publication.
 From 2011 – 2017, Ronald had been an Adjunct Professor for a Master of Science in Technology and taught PM courses at the University of Houston’s College of Technology. Teaching from his own book, Project Management Tools and Techniques – A Practical Guide, Ronald offers a perspective on project management that reflects his many years of experience. Lastly in the Houston area, he has started up two Toastmasters clubs and does voluntary work at various food banks. 

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