USAA Tips: How to deliver unwelcome news to your boss

Content provided courtesy of USAA | By Chad Storlie

In both the military and in business, no one likes to be surprised by bad news and no one likes to deliver bad news. Yet, delivering bad news to your boss is a sign of being a great business leader and a solid leader in both good times and bad. Candor, trust, timeliness, and honesty are all signs of a great leader. There is no better test of your leadership qualities than being able to deliver bad news.

Follow these tips to help deliver bad or unwelcome news in a way that is professional.

1. Understand Your Boss’s Priorities. Many times, bad news or off-goal business results which surprise business leaders come from not understanding the priorities of your immediate and next higher-level business leader. Remember that adage of military planning: know the mission of your leaders one and two levels up? The same goes for the business and the civilian world. If you know what is vitally important to your leaders, then the minute anything looks amiss to achieving those goals, you can reach out with information, context, and a revised plan to put their goals back on track. The bottom line: understand the priorities of your immediate and next higher business leaders.

2. Have a Regular and Standardized Way to Report on Business Priorities. Things seldom go wrong in the military or in business from a “perfect” or “on plan” state to a situation of pure disaster. Rather, individuals tend to lose focus on checking on priorities in a consistent manner. Then, when they revisit their priorities and the project status, they are surprised that progress or the situation has deteriorated. To prevent this from happening, have your boss and anyone else senior in the project approve a standard methodology for assessing success and schedule standard updates for the project. This way, there are no surprises on a project's progress (or lack of progress), and everyone agrees on how to evaluate the project’s success (or lack of success). The bottom line: having an agreed upon way to evaluate and measure a project’s success is an integral way to ensure no surprises.

3. Inform Your Boss of the Bad News in a First Report Within 15 Minutes. No one likes to be the last one to hear bad news. When you first hear of bad news, gather as much information as you can in 15 minutes and then go inform your boss. In all organizations, bad news and the rumors that bad news creates travel very fast. In addition, the first reports of bad news tend to miss key facts and other information almost always. After informing your boss and before you leave them, ask when they need additional information and / or a plan on how to react to the situation. Be sure to give your boss written information and a brief timeline to provide to his / her superior. The bottom line: don’t let bad news become worse by not informing your boss immediately. Come to your boss within 15 minutes with a first report of the situation.

4. Don’t Just Rush Back in with 25% of the Information and No Plan. The thing that bosses hate most after being surprised by bad information is when they are given no plan to repair a bad situation. Plans go wrong all the time, but uncorrected initial information combined with no plan to rectify the current situation can make a boss go over the “red” line quickly. After first informing your boss about the bad news, then go back out to gather and to reconfirm the bad news. Most importantly, start to put together a plan or strategic options how to react to the bad news. The bottom line: When you hear bad news then do your best to confirm the information, gather additional facts, and create a plan for your boss how to react to the bad news to get back on plan.

5. Don’t Forget About Your Other Priorities. A classic response in both military and corporate settings is to over-react to the bad news and start to focus 100 percent of the organization on just that problem. Instead, ensure that your other priorities, projects, and plans are in a good situation, progressing, and not showing any possible related problems. The bottom line: don’t overreact in your responses to the bad news and stop being successful on your other projects. Remember that success comes from multiple projects and one piece of bad news should not deter your strategic focus.

Preparing for bad news is the first step to ensuring a successful project. No matter the amount of planning, bad news will always and will continue to happen. Make sure that you have a regular time and process to inform your boss on the current state of your project. And, when bad news does occur, make sure you inform your boss as soon as possible, have a plan to rectify the situation, and make sure you remember and succeed on your other priorities.