Delivering Bad News to Your Executive Team


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There are three guarantees when it comes to planning and executing work: efforts have a beginning, they eventually end, and somewhere in between something will go awry, fall behind, or completely block progress until a solution is set in place. So you anticipate risk, plan for it, and deal with it when it comes your way.

The big question looms: as a business professional and leader, how and when should you communicate bad news to executives and management?

Read more: Top Reasons Why Projects Fail

Big vs Small Issues

Every issue during a project needs attention. This doesn’t always mean you have to be the bearer of bad news. This is why knowing when and how to communicate issues up the chain of command is an important and learned skill.

You have two choices: wait and do your best to mitigate the problem at your level of expertise or ask for help right away before things spiral out of your control. For small or very new issues, your best course is generally to wait. For larger problems, the best way to go is to ask for help sooner than later.

But is the problem big or small? There are a few things you should consider when making that call.

  • Think like an executive. Try to see how your manager or their boss might react to and act on the situation. Think about what questions they might ask and recommendations they might make for solutions. What would be a good plan A, plan B, or plan C?
  • Understand the implications. Take the time to analyze the implications of waiting or collaborating on a solution right away. Is there a great cost at stake? Is there a client relationship on the line? Is there a simple solution, such as bringing on more resources or reprioritizing a set of tasks?
  • Negotiate conflict. If you make an attempt to fix the problem on your own through negotiation and there is pushback, or your effort is unsuccessful, the situation may be more serious—and it may be time to pull in senior leadership. Exhaust simple solutions first, such as adjusting the plan and work steps, before widening the audience.

Read more: 6 Reasons for Budget Overruns

When to Deliver Bad News

The best time to communicate is always now. When the line goes quiet is when issues arise. As you track work efforts, be prepared to tackle issues and handle them right away by first:

  • Identifying areas of risk and challenges before they occur, and understanding why they might occur.
  • Following up on progress and any possible risk periodically through biweekly, monthly, and/or quarterly check-ins with senior management.
  • Immediately communicating sudden issues that need an action plan now, as opposed to waiting and seeing if they resolve on their own.

How to Deliver Bad News

Learn the communication styles of your team members, leads, managers, and above. They are all different and will require different approaches.

  • When in doubt, ask. You don’t want to assume anything in business and it is better to ask up front. There is never a “dumb” question, only clarity.
  • Deliver routine status reports. Keep management in the know through regular status reports outlining what is in progress, in planning, completed. Highlight areas of risk and challenge and have a solution plan in place.
  • Schedule special meetings. Some things take more planning in order to get the best outcome. Meeting in advance for input and awareness will get potential big issues out in the open and on everyone’s radar.
  • Get it in writing. Decisions and approvals that need to be made should be documented in writing and have a “paper trail.” Include these details in an official report or even in an email, which you can go back to and find details on if the need arises.

Read more: Key Stakeholder Examples and Their Roles

How to Communicate with Your Executive Team: 7 Tips

  • Start with the big picture and build details from the ground up.
  • Use clear language, especially if the issue is technical.
  • Stick to facts and leave out personal opinions.
  • Don’t sugarcoat the problem.
  • If you can’t answer a question, admit this and get the answer for them as soon as you can.
  • Understand that executives don’t know all the details and may be hearing them for the first time.
  • Offer suggestions for solutions, but understand that this is a conversation — and your solution may not be the best one.

Your decision on how best to handle and report issues to upper management will be supported by your expertise and professional opinion. You may be required to handle an issue you have never encountered before, and that is okay. This is an opportunity for growth!

You have the resources, expertise, and support you need within your team and organization to address and resolve almost anything. Learn and grow from these professional experiences, and trust your training and intuition when deciding to go it alone or ask for help.

Read next: How Project Managers Should Deal with Procrastination at Work

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