Guest Blog Post By: Alison H. Sigmon, M.Ed., PMP | Author: Delivering Bad News in Good Ways

Maybe one of these situations sounds familiar…

  1.  The marketing strategy you and your team implemented for your company’s new innovative product that, according to consumer research, will to take the market place by storm is failing badly. The project sponsor has mandated a complete change in direction but has cut your budget by 20 percent and accelerated your timeline.
  2.  After nearly a year of development on a technical system to integrate several disparate processes within customer service, end user testing results are showing a very low usability and adoption rate. Leadership is demanding a solution. Now.
  3. You’ve just found out your resources have been slashed by 30 percent, but the sponsor won’t budge on the workload. More with less is the mandate.

Breaking bad news is never easy. With the evolution of technology and Internet usage now well over three billion people worldwide, today’s business climate requires quick change to stay competitive. The speed, reach, and consumer options now available mean organizations must be nimble, creative, and able to adjust quickly to shifting market conditions.

The upside of the ability to change quickly is market edge. The downside? You need to know how to deliver bad news. Agile, rapid change impacts people, which can be perceived by stakeholders as bad, difficult, or challenging, which means you may need to break bad news sometime in the future.

And what about the situations at the beginning of this post? They likely will be viewed as bad news to a team because it will require quick change on top of the other million other things they also need to do.

Change allows organizations to re-invent themselves, move in new directions, and recover from misfortune, but in the project trenches change is at risk for being viewed as a disturbance to their (and our) way of seeing and doing things. Large or small, change of any size makes an impact. And guess who is on the hook for breaking the bad news?

Yep, that would be you, project manager.

So let’s consider this. When giving and receiving news about change, how do you and your project team members view it?

  • Interruption to stability or the start of a journey
  • Response to a disturbance or a path to innovation
  • Problem or an opportunity

If you said, “It depends,” that would be a more than fair response because it does! If you and/or the stakeholders tend to see it as a negative then it will be tempting to postpone, avoid, and stress about it.

When it comes to breaking bad news, consider this: The trees are still in the forest even if we’re not there to see them. The bad news will still be there even when we don’t address it. The problem with that is the longer it’s put it off, the higher the risk the situation will go off the rails. It’s not a matter of if you should deliver bad news, but how to deliver bad news.

Finally, a great way to deliver bad news…

When you have to break bad news to stakeholders, it’s important to prepare for it because of the likely emotional impact.

In my book Delivering Bad News in Good Ways you get a 3-step process to do just that – turn difficult conversations into purposeful dialogue, positive outcomes, & focused results using the SED Method, a process I created over the years while working with companies and government agencies around the world.

SED Method: Separate, Evaluate, & Deliver

Before jumping into breaking bad news, we must separate the people from the problem, which is similar to the principle noted in Roger Fisher and William Ury book called Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. This, however, is a little trickier when it comes to delivering bad news.

Project support is driven from some level of emotional investment.  Contrary to popular belief and supported by research there is a point when the paycheck is not what compels us to do our best in our work.

Whether we are driven to help others, innovate, learn a new skill, collaborate, or get recognition, these things are fueled by emotional investment. With studies from groups like Gallup, we’re learning that intrinsic rewards (personal interest, enjoyment of a task, learning growth) are a much stronger motivator in the workplace than extrinsic rewards (pay, benefits, stock options).

But what does this have to do with breaking bad news? Whatever the motivation every project manager hopes to have that intrinsic, high level of passion and commitment on their team, BUT it comes with a price:  The higher the emotional investment people have in the project, the harder time they will have bouncing back from bad news about it. Keep this in mind when you’re determining how to deliver bad news.

So, you might be wondering this: why is it so hard for stakeholders to get past “bad” and just get the work done?

The globalization paradigm means information can move 15,000 miles instantly. That means people are hit with roughly 11,000,000,000 bits of information at once. Of that we have awareness of about 40 of them, but our capacity to process the information deeply is limited to around seven bits.

When it comes to breaking bad news, it’s this limited capacity that creates a cognitive load paradigm – an inability to adapt to change as rapidly as technology.  So, the net-net is it takes time for people to adapt to the change that companies need for projects to be delivered quickly.

When the team is in synch, excited, and feeling empowered, the sky is the limit and energy and enthusiasm are running high it is clear the heads and hearts of the stakeholders are engaged. While we want that, the old cliché of “the higher they are, the harder they fall” comes to mind. In other words, breaking bad news for a team like this can make or break it.

Part I: Prepping for delivering bad news

The tipping point for how stakeholders respond to bad news is the way you assess, frame, and share it. That’s why, when determining how to deliver bad news, we address with the SED Method, which stands for Separate, Evaluate, & Deliver.

The Separate gives us a chance to investigate and collect the facts, opinions, and details of the situation so we can act rather than react to challenging situations.

The Evaluate step gives us time to sort through that information, determine what is relevant, and identify options in preparation of breaking bad news to the receiver. It is in this step that you have a chance to evaluate your feelings, assess the possible feeling of others, and identify options.

The Deliver step helps to determine how best to craft and present the news in a way that can be heard. It also gut checks you on timing, materials, and location.

Part II: The Talk

Preparing for breaking bad news is the first step. The second step is the discussion that follows once you’ve share the bad news. The Talk model outlined in the book gives you a brief process to follow to facilitate to next steps.

When it comes to delivering bad news, most of us tend to avoid it like the plague. We sweep it under the rug and put off dealing with it, but it’s always there – an ugly, festering lump deepening stress with each day it’s not addressed. Wondering how to deliver bad news? The SED Method offers an alternative.

When it comes to breaking bad news, facing up to it early and often is healthy for businesses, projects, and life in general. The method takes a tough, common problem and shows you why bad news needs to be delivered in a timely, thoughtful manner and how best to deliver it in good and productive ways.

And as project managers on the hook for facilitating and managing change, a helping hand (or process in this case) is always welcome.

Delivering Bad News in Good Ways is available in ebook and paperback.