5 Things to Consider When Bringing Bad News to Your Boss

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(U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Hvozda)

It can happen to anyone: You need to let your boss know something bad has happened. Maybe you missed a critical deadline, perhaps you feel under-skilled for a project you’ve been tasked with or maybe you must alert them to something unpleasant about a colleague.

Bringing bad news to your boss can raise feelings of fear, hesitation, anxiety and reluctance as you worry about being the bearer of bad news.

During your time in the military, you may have encountered a situation where you had to alert senior officers or commanders to news of trouble. The communication was likely also filled with trepidation, but it may have been easier to separate emotion from fact because communicating something bad wasn’t designed to be personal. It instead was viewed as critical to ensuring the safety of everyone involved.

In your civilian career, sharing bad news is nuanced. Sharing the news poorly can lead to you being typecast as a tattletale. Sharing news prematurely might earn you the title of “town crier,” and if you’re the one to point out the negative in a situation, they may label you a “Negative Nancy.” Any of these labels is unfortunate and can impact your reputation and career options going forward.

Instead, to communicate bad news to your boss, ask yourself:

1. What is my intent, purpose or point in sharing the news? Am I alerting my boss of a potential problem with the project? If I share the news early, can we remedy the situation? Or am I sharing the news to avoid being associated with people who’re doing something incorrect?

Your goal in sharing the news should be clear to you and your boss. Complaining without a goal may frustrate your boss. Ensure you clearly and confidently can explain why you are bringing this news to them now.

2. What is the impact of the news? Will your boss need to make changes to a team schedule because you’ll miss a deadline? What are the consequences if you remained quiet?

Sharing the news should be seen as giving them time to plan accordingly. Will your news help your boss avoid spending money on a project that’s being canceled soon? That could have direct benefits to your boss and the company. Be clear about the impact to the team, the company and your boss as you consider sharing the news.

3. How might your boss feel about the news? If you’ll be calling out your colleague for an infraction, how might your boss receive that news? What if your colleague and boss have worked together for many years?

This news might cause them personal distress, as well as impact the team. Consider the feelings of your boss as you share the bad news.

4. Who else might be impacted? As best you can, help your boss anticipate who else might be affected by this bad news. Missing a deadline might slow another department from completing their projects. A client canceling an order might hurt the commission of a salesperson who’s relying on the income.

Bring ideas of who else might need to be alerted to the news and what the impact to them might be.

5. What solutions can you offer? If you’re bringing a problem to your boss, can you also offer a solution? For instance, if you’ll be unable to lead a project because you don’t feel you have adequate training, is it possible for you to get the training and return to the project later? Or if you’re alerting your boss to a problem with an unhappy client, can you offer ideas on how to make the client feel better?

Just handing your boss a problem and expecting them to resolve it for you may not support your reputation in the most positive way.

It’s very likely at some point in your civilian career you will need to share bad news. Knowing this, try to establish trust and credibility in advance -- with your boss and colleagues -- to make the delivery of the message go smoother.

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