How to Deliver Bad News When It's Not Your Fault
Have you ever shared bad news with coworkers, employees or partners? As much as we don't want to shoot the messenger, sometimes we associate negative feelings with the person who tells us bad news.
Work is hard enough as is. You don't need a negative halo effect associated with you, especially if a situation was out of your control. For example, maybe you and a partner organization submitted a proposal and were waiting to hear back from a Fortune 1000 client. The client tells you that another company out-bid you with a lower quote.
Now, you have to tell your partner that they have to re-submit a bid. You feel terrible because they put a lot of work into the bid. Maybe you could have communicated more clearly upfront and set better expectations ... So you're feeling a little guilty, too.
This happened to one of my clients, and he made the mistake of sounding overly negative in the email to his colleague. We fixed it, but it's a valuable lesson for anyone who's had to share negative news at work (which is all of us at some point).
If you have to deliver bad news that wasn't your fault, here are tips to keep in mind:
1. Avoid negative words, especially "however."
Small changes in word choice can impact your audience's perception -- for the better or for the worse. According to George Lakoff, a professor in cognitive science and linguistics at University of California, Berkeley, you should use language that evokes imagery and strengthens your point.
You should especially be careful about using negative words that could lead your audience to catastrophize. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, the co-authors of Words Can Change Your Brain, said, "Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes."
"However" was great for high school essays, but there's rarely a need for it in your toolkit now. It makes everything sound heavier and more dramatic than it needs to be. The goal here is to minimize drama. If you really need to, use "but."
2. Avoid giving too many details -- save some information if they ask.
When you feel guilty, you want to explain everything. You secretly hope that by explaining, the person will understand and absolve you of guilt. Don't give in to the temptation to explain everything in excruciating detail.
First, it's selfish: you're only doing it to make yourself feel better. Second, it complicates the actual message. Recipients won't know when the facts end and your own narrative begins. Third, you owe it to them to be direct.
Respect your recipients enough to give them the key information they need to make a smart decision. If they have additional questions, they'll ask. This opens up dialogue instead of overwhelming them with information.
3. Don't accidentally accept blame.
I'm all for accepting blame -- if you're responsible for what happened. There's a difference between empathizing ("I acknowledge this is frustrating") and accepting blame ("I should have done X and Y, but I didn't at the time.").
As the messenger, there's no point in inviting your audience's wrath for no reason. When you scan your email, ask yourself, "Might they think I'm accidentally accepting blame because of my phrasing and word choice?"
An upset colleague or boss might project anger onto you as a way to cope with negative feelings. The danger of accidentally accepting blame is it legitimizes your audience's negative perceptions, even if they were inaccurate and misplaced to begin with.
You're essentially inviting them to project onto you. This erodes trust in your working relationships and tarnishes your credibility. If it happens too many times, it could stall your career because you're associated with failed projects.
4. Get to your point quickly.
"We only give a couple of instructions to people when they go to work for us: One is to think like an owner. And the second is to tell us bad news immediately -- because good news takes care of itself. We can take bad news, but we don't like it late," Warren Buffett once told Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.
Contrary to what you might think, adding too much preface makes things sound worse. The tension builds and the person is imaging the worst thing that could possibly happen.
Cognitive psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis describes why we mentally escalate scenarios to the most extreme and negative conclusion. When your audience finally hears the bad news, they might think, "Oh, that wasn't so bad." But, even though that's a pleasant surprise, relatively speaking, your colleagues just spent several minutes letting their imaginations wander. That's cruel of you to do. Preface as little as you can, so you can share the meat of what they need to know.
5. Remind the person of their own agency.
In a famous speech at USC Business School in 1994, Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger said, "If people tell you what you really don't want to hear -- what's unpleasant -- there's an almost automatic reaction of antipathy."
When people get bad news, they'll want to blame someone for their frustration -- don't let that someone be you.
Our natural reaction is to shoot the messenger, but you can combat this by reminding your audience that they were involved in the situation, too. Chances are, they had a role to play in what happened.
Reminding people of their agency can be useful here. Behavioral scientist and bestselling author Nir Eyal wrote about how the freedom to choose encourages people to behave more generously. Applied here, you want to remind your colleague that you were both aware of the risks -- and jointly decided to proceed anyway.
This will put your colleague in a more collaborative and understanding mood. For example:
- You both knew the result might not work.
- You're on the same team and working toward the same goal.
- You're going out of your way to help them because you'd rather work with them than someone else.
Of course, put a soft wrapper around your message. Don't just say, "We both knew this might not work. Don't act so surprised now." A sarcastic remark sounds like you're blaming them, which isn't what you want to do.
Instead, try saying the following:
"Last month, we talked about how we had a one in 10 chance of winning this bid. We decided to pursue it given the high payoff. At this point, if we choose to continue in the process, we could submit another proposal. I know it takes a lot of effort on your part, so it might or might not be worth the time. I can discuss with my team, too. Thanks for working on this together. Let's circle back mid next week -- let me know what you prefer to do."
Accepting responsibility is important. If there's any doubt that you are responsible, you should proactively address that. These tips are for times when you're simply a messenger -- and just as surprised by the news as your recipient is. In situations like these, use the tips above to protect yourself and help your recipient understand the situation with minimal drama.