Robert Stack, portraying  Eliot Ness in the TV show and movie The Untouchables was asked if he heard about Al Capone’s death.  Stack responded, “Good news travels fast.” That is so true. Not only that, but good news also has many parents. I once overheard the CEO of my company being asked if he heard about the collection of a  long overdue accounts receivable  He said, “Yes, from about a dozen people.” 

On the other hand, bad news travels much more slowly than good news, if at all, throughout an organization. Unfortunate information about a problem is an orphan as people are often reluctant to pass it along.  This can be a problem as sometimes as an immediate response may mitigate the effects of the  problem.

How do you deliver bad news?  Well, let’s start with some ways you should NOT deliver bad news:

  • Email.  When I was a busy CFO I would receive a massive number of emails per day. It was hard to keep up with them, and sometimes a whole day would pass  before I worked through my entire email queue.  Like most people, I would respond to  the most recent email first and work backwards.  If the bad news or the problem was buried in my email, I  often could not respond to it on a timely basis. It was even worse if I accidentally deleted the email before reading it. I eventually turned the tables by sending out an email to my colleagues prohibiting the communication of bad news to me via email. I did not want to play email roulette with bad news.  I thought it was ironic when some of my colleagues  said that email  was lost in their email. 
  • The “desk document dump”.  This sneaky method consists of waiting until your manager leaves his office and then throwing a document with the bad news on her desk. The person doing this prays it won’t be found until the next day, or even better, it will be buried by other documents thrown on top of it. I truly hated this, and I eventually learned to close my office door when I left it, even for a short while. 
  • The casual conversation in the hallway.  As you are rushing off to an appointment, your colleague tries to quickly deliver bad news, often requiring an immediate answer.  You can’t focus on it, and even worse, feel forced to give a quick, off the cuff response.  As Daniel Kahneman writes in his best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, these initial reactions are often wrong, potentially compounding the problem. 
  • Delivering bad news at 4 pm on a Friday. You wait  until the very end of the workweek to lower the boom on your  manager, depriving her of the ability to react appropriately to the situation.  Companies and government agencies have raised this to an artform. They rely on the fact their audience may already be focusing on the weekend. What’s worse, the manager on the receiving end thinks about the bad news over the weekend, feeling frustrated at her inability to respond to the problem.  
  • Not delivering the bad news at all.  People simply  do not like confrontation. They hope the situation will turn around or the crisis will blow over before anything needs to be done about it. Obviously, this can be disastrous if the bad news needs to be addressed right away. 

How should someone deliver bad news?  Here are a few suggestions: 

  • It is okay to think about the problem for a little bit before going to your manager with it.  Please note this does not mean sitting on a problem for an extended period of time.  It means quickly ascertaining all of the facts about a situation, organizing them in a logical manner so they are easily communicated and coming up with potential solutions. Managers hate having a problem dumped on their desk without  a  proposed solution. A good manager  values colleagues who work harder in adversity and having a proposed solution shows this. 
  • Make sure the recipient of the bad news has engaged their System 2.  Kahneman writes that we make decisions and eventually take action in two different ways.  System 1 responses are fast and intuitive and often wrong. That is one of the problems with the casual hallway conversation.  System 2 is the application of our full conscious attention to a problem. Make sure the person receiving the bad news has engaged System 2 or they otherwise might not even remember receiving the information at all! How do you do this?  Each person has their own preferred decision-making process. I liked it when someone made an appointment with me so I could focus all of my attention on a problem. I would engage my System 2 and work on the problem with minimal distraction.  You will need to find your colleagues’ preferred method of focusing on bad news or a problem. They will also appreciate the honesty. 
  • If you are forced to communicate problems via email, follow up. If circumstances require communicating bad news via email and you did not hear anything back from your manager, wait an appropriate amount of time and then follow up with a phone call or a visit to their office. Who knows? The email might have been accidentally deleted or your manager’s attention is diverted elsewhere. Not everyone is glued to their cell phone or their computers. They may not even know a problem has occurred. 

Besides the sneaky methods of delivering bad news I listed in this article, what other ways have you received bad news?  I would certainly be interested in hearing from you!

One thought on “Delivering Bad News

  1. I think bad news should always be conveyed sooner than later. Place of delivery and many other factors can influence the impact of the delivery. You need to understand the person you are delivering the news to and their mental state to receive the bad news. Lastly, bad news is never easy to deliver and I have had people respond back afterwards…thank you for not sugar coating or delaying the message. Always leave that meeting letting them know that if they need help in any way…just ask…ie a job referral.


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