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As an engineering leader, delivering bad news at some point is a sure thing. Here’s how you can skip the anxiety around it and ensure smooth sailing.

At some point in your career, you will need to deliver bad news to an important customer, stakeholder, manager, or one of your team members. This could be a delayed milestone, a significant feature not making release, or a significant issue impacting customers. Delivering bad news is tough and can lead to anxiety or many sleepless nights. Let's explore ways to deliver bad news as best as possible.

Reflect on what actions you took

One of the greatest fears of delivering bad news is that others will blame you for the situation. But before communicating, first reflect on what led to the current situation.

Reflect on questions like:

  • Did you anticipate the current situation? 
  • Did you take any steps beforehand to try to avoid the current situation? 
  • Did your actions directly lead to the current situation? 

If you foresaw the current situation and did everything possible to address it, then others shouldn't necessarily blame you for it. But suppose you could have anticipated the current situation and did nothing, or your actions directly caused it, you need to prepare yourself to accept some blame. 

Great leaders accept responsibility and hold themselves accountable for their actions (or lack thereof). Prepare yourself for a conversation where you don't blame others. Owning your mistakes shows you take your leadership role seriously.

Acknowledge their interests, not just yours

Bad news typically impacts many parties in many ways. When you deliver the news, it's easy to focus on you and your team's needs. It might sound like, "Our team worked three weekends in a row," or "We might need to bring in an extra contractor to ensure we don't miss the next deadline." It's easy to ask for help during stressful times, but it also doesn't demonstrate empathy for others affected by the bad news. 

Before communicating any unpleasant news, think about other teams or departments affected by the situation. Note down potential impacts others might feel, even if you're unsure. When communicating the news, share these notes to demonstrate that you understand the situation’s seriousness. 

For example, "This API will not be finished by the end of this quarter. I'm sorry because the sales team will have some tough talks with key customers who want to integrate with it." Alternatively, it might be, "Our services went down on the weekend, and it put a lot of stress on the customer services centre."

Dealing with strong emotions

Receiving bad news can trigger strong emotions, leading to tense conversations, raised voices, or abusive language. By proactively empathizing with others you can diffuse these emotions and show you’re aware of the wider impact.  This understanding helps to move the conversation forward.

I've delivered a lot of bad news as a consultant. I've even had an ex-VP of a prestigious finance firm shout at me in front of an entire leadership team during one tense meeting. How do you cope with situations like this? Firstly, in tense situations, pause and breathe. You need oxygen to think clearly and avoid escalating the situation. Others might also need the time to process and think. Secondly, focus on naming the emotion you're observing in the other party. It could be anger, frustration, or irritation. 

Labeling emotions can take away their power and, depending on the situation, could be worth calling out directly or indirectly. For example, if you want to be direct, you might say, "I feel like you're frustrated by this news." Or indirectly, "I feel like emotions are extremely high right now." When you notice strong emotions, create time and space to allow people to process this. You might suggest taking a 30-minute break for everyone to process the news and rejoin the conversation.

One mental trick I employ is reminding myself that everyone processes information differently and I'm not responsible for other people’s reactions. It's their choice if they want to shout, not mine. 

Sometimes, I find it helpful to reframe the emotion. For instance, you might think, "They're not angry with me. They're angry about the current situation." Reframing is especially useful if you're only the messenger and not the cause or significant contributor to the problem.

Focus on the future, not on the past

Many tough conversations can devolve into a blame game to find who is at fault and why a bad situation occurred. While it's important to learn from this experience and prevent future repeat instances, it's useful to ensure that a conversation focuses on the future and not on the past. After all, we can’t change the past. Instead, it’s more fruitful to put our attention on those things that we can control or influence, which are future-focused elements.

To avoid fixating on the past, acknowledge the past events and everyone's feelings, and shift the conversation towards the future. You might say something like, "You're absolutely right. It's a terrible situation we're in. Let's talk about what we can do now to contain the impact or how to avoid finding ourselves in this situation again." If you find people going around and around in circles trying to blame someone, you might say something like, "I know emotions might be extremely high right now. But finding someone to blame won't change our present circumstance. Let's focus on what we must do now to move forward."

Create options and discuss tradeoffs

Delivering bad news feels like you're simply giving someone else a big problem. But sometimes, there are ways to move forward – with some added help.  

For example, if you're going to miss a deadline, you might think about options like:

  • Borrowing a person from a different team.
  • Hiring a temporary contractor or consultant.
  • Cutting certain scope to hit the deadline.
  • Asking if the deadline can be extended.

Each option will have different tradeoffs, and others impacted may prefer a particular solution. Come prepared with at least three different viable options for achieving a more positive outcome.

Final thoughts

While I can't think of anyone who really looks forward to delivering bad news, it's an inevitable situation you will find yourself in when you're leading teams. To get comfortable with delivering bad news, reflect on what actions (or lack of) contributed to the situation, acknowledge everyone's interests without focusing on yours, and create time for people to process strong emotions. Focus on what you can control and influence, and come to the discussion prepared with at least three options to move forward. While bad news is bad news, delivering it doesn't have to be.