“Good News / Bad News” vs. “News Delivered / News Withheld”

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I don’t agree with the whole “good news/bad news” paradigm.  There is only “news delivered” and “news withheld.”  The difference is whether the news is delivered well or delivered badly.

It’s tempting to withhold “bad news.”  Sometimes we hope that things will change and we won’t have to deliver the news.  Other times, we hope that we’ll have more and better information later.  In both cases, we tend to do the wrong thing by failing to share what we know with those who have an interest in knowing it.  This doesn’t change the nature of the news, but it may complicate your ability to resolve the situation.

The worst way to deliver such news is to put it off until you have no choice, then deliver the news late.  If you think the recipient is going to be unhappy when they hear the news you withheld from them, just think about how angry they’ll be (with YOU, by the way) when they find out that you ‘ve known for a while but didn’t bother to tell them.  You could try to cover up this fact too, but now you’re complicating things even further.

Another way to deliver such news badly is to do only that – deliver the news.  You do a disservice by showing up and only presenting a problem.  What’s the context?  What’s the impact?  What should we do?  You need to do more than show up and deliver the news.  You need to provide leadership.  A better approach is to do one of two things:

  1. Deliver the news right away with assurances that you/your team is looking into options to address the issue and that you will have options and a recommendation forward by a specific date/time; or
  2. Get with your team first to develop the options and a recommendation forward, THEN go deliver the news, options and recommendation.

This is just the same approach at two different points in time.  You’ll judge which is most appropriate based on the nature of the news and the business impact to the stakeholder.  You also have to consider the temperment of the stakeholder in framing your delivery (that’s another post entirely).  The goal is to get everyone informed, in agreement and focused on addressing the issue as a team and moving the ball forward.

We’ve all played “How Did This Happen??” where a customer or business partner demands timelines, root cause analyses, written assurances that this will never happen again, etc.  While there is value in “How Did This Happen??” in the right context, this exercise is usually intended as a punishment or to send a message.  This is more typical of an ‘Us and Them’ relationship and not the product of a true partnership.  Producing timelines doesn’t solve the problem.  Avoid this.

I like this simple approach.  Provide the recipient with the following:

  • High level details of the issue: “What happened?”
  • Business impact: “Why should YOU care?”
  • Options (including pros and cons for each): “What CAN we do?”
  • Recommendation (yours or your team’s): “What SHOULD we do?”
  • Request a decision

If you do this verbally, follow-up with a summary in writing, capturing all of the above and cc’ing other appropriate stakeholders (particularly any members of your team who provided input and who may also be implementing the solution).  Root cause analyses and lessons learned come after the fact, but initially you want a team commitment to solving the problem, not in assigning blame.

Delivering “bad news” does not have to be painful, but you do no favors by withholding information.  Go ugly early, but provide options toward getting beautiful again.  Don’t deliver problems – deliver solutions.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

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One thought on ““Good News / Bad News” vs. “News Delivered / News Withheld”

    PM Hut said:
    August 18, 2011 at 9:10 AM

    Hi Mark,

    I think you offer an excellent view on how to deliver bad news, especially if it’s the job of the project manager to do so (delivering bad news to the stakeholders).

    I would like to republish your article on PM Hut. Please either email me or contact me through the “Contact Us” form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

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