Giving your boss bad news


My last post dealt with annual performance appraisals in general, but afterwards I thought, what if you’ve had a really bad year.  What if you have to tell your boss that you’ve failed to meet your objectives; your project is failing.  This then lead me to thinking about other situations where for example your boss has a fantastic idea for your team, only it is not quite as fantastic as he or she thinks and you need to tell him or her so.  Or what about when you need to tell your boss no?  If appraisals make you nervous, then this situation definitely will.
Obviously, the whole situation is delicate.  No-one likes bad news; no-one likes to hear the word no.  When it’s your boss, it has the potential to really affect your career both in the short and long term.  So, how do you do it?

Keep it information based / factual


Before even starting the conversation, make sure that you have all of the information to hand.  Be prepared for questions and alternative suggestions as the conversation progresses.

  • If you are dealing with an idea of your boss that is likely to fail, have examples ready of similar ideas that ended badly and the analysis of why those ideas didn’t work.
  • If you are overwhelmed with your work and need support, make sure you have a full list of all of your current responsibilities.  Be ready with an apology, take responsibility for the problem, ensure you have a plan ready to get back on track, and suggestions to improve your method of work so that this doesn’t happen again.
  • If your project is failing, analyse why, be ready with possible solutions and a list of the resources you will need to get back on track.

Remember the more prepared you are, the more confident you will be!

Keep it privatetelephone

Think about where you are going to have this conversation.  Always make sure that it is a one-to-one situation, where none of your coworkers can overhear you.  If you have to tell your boss that his or her idea is not going to work, the last thing your boss will want is someone overhearing you.  Also bad news should be delivered in person.  Having that kind of conversation over the phone means that you cannot read your bosses’ body language which is a handicap when you need to adjust your delivery based on their reaction. On a more personal note, it will also prevent you from being a source of gossip if the conversation goes badly.

Keep it to yourself

Similarly, don’t tell your coworkers about the situation beforehand.  Gossip spreads.  If your boss hears you are unhappy before you tell him, he or she will not be happy that you didn’t come to them first.  Also, spreading gossip about your boss is quite simply unprofessional.

timeKeep it prompt

If your boss has a bad idea and you wait until after it has started to fail, then he or she is likely to be angry.  You could even be accused of negligence.  Similarly, if you are overwhelmed and need support, your boss needs to know about it sooner rather than later.  The conversation is not going to be easy, but it will be even worse if you wait.

Keep it company biased

Make sure that your emphasis is on your bosses’ / company’s needs not on your own.  Try to put yourself in your bosses shoes.  Having a list of your bosses needs / wants to hand can help with this.

Keep it unemotional

When talking to your boss, keep all emotion out of it.  Try to keep it impersonal.  You may hate your boss, but telling him or her so will not help you, actually it will probably make things worse.  Instead, keep the conversation firmly factual.  Ensuring you have all the detail to hand (keeping it information based) will help!  Try to keep in mind what you want from the conversation.  Is it to prove that your boss is stupid and that you are amazing, or is it to change your bosses’ mind?

Secondly, before going into the meeting, get rid of any negative feelings beforehand.  You may be angry, upset and overwhelmed, but showing that will not help.  Think the situation through, acknowledge what you are feeling and put it to one side.  Logic and fact should rule the conversation

managerKeep it professional

“He said”, “She said”, finger pointing, apportioning blame, repeating gossip and raking up dirt will not help you and should be avoided at all costs.  Keeping it professional includes agreeing on a time and place for the meeting and keeping to it.   Show your boss respect and deference even if the idea he or she has is ludicrous and even if you think they are incompetent.

Keep it calm

Think about your words before you use them.  Think about your body language.  Think about your tone of voice.  If you go into the meeting with your arms crossed, a scowl on your face, use negative language and don’t keep an open mind, your boss is going to react badly.  Use non-confrontational language and keep your voice low and quiet.  Even if the situation becomes tense, remember to breathe and keep calm.

manager2Keep it impersonal

Even if you use the right language and do all the right things, your boss could still react badly.  Your boss is a human being, not a robot and as such could take the news personally.  If that happens, remain calm and remember that whatever their reaction, their body language and words, it is not personal.  Your boss is reacting to the news, not to you!

Keep it honest

Don’t lie to your boss and tell him or her that an idea is a good one if it isn’t.  Instead affirm the possibility of the idea.  Tell them the truth, tactfully, or even better get them to see the truth for themselves using open ended questions.  If that fails, you could even suggest the need for further research to see how feasible the project / idea is.  For example:

“I’d like to explore the idea you suggested at the last meeting.  What outcomes are we looking for if the idea comes to fruition?  What kind of reaction can we expect from customers / the board, both negative and positive?  What prompted the idea?”

Using questions, you can slowly get your boss to see that the idea has negative consequences without actually saying it, saving face for your boss and getting you off the hook.  Be careful though!  Try not to ask obvious questions, this can backfire.  If you say directly: “Do you think the board will like this?” It’s obvious that you are implying that the board won’t and some bosses will take exception to the implication that they haven’t thought it through.

results_poorEventually though you may have to tell the boss that it is a bad idea.  Keep it factual rather than opinion based and make sure you are prepared with lots of data, examples and alternatives.

Another example of when honesty is best is when you’ve messed up and need to shift your objectives.  Own up to your mistakes.  Hiding behind others, shifting responsibility and blaming tools or software will look unprofessional and worst-case, you could lose the respect of your boss if and when they learn the truth.  Don’t even use white lies or fudge the truth.

Keep it positive

Finally, never use absolute negatives like “No” or “Impossible”.  Remember that regardless of the situation, it is not your decision to make, it is your bosses’.  Try to keep surprises to a minimum and try to be open even if you disagree vehemently with your boss.


Obviously, mastering all of the above is not easy.  Even if you are a model employee though, you have to take responsibility for your own actions.  If you are unable to change your bosses’ mind, if you cannot resolve the situation, then you have two choices.  Become a master at office politics and try again or find another position.

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