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The project I'm working on isn't going well; unfortunately, I just don't have the resources to complete it as assigned. However, nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. What can I do to make the conversation go over more smoothly?

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Hi sir would you like a christmas cookie? Ohh by the way that critical project you had me working on... How does that cookie taste good? Great... –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Dec 20 '12 at 19:23
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Is this a team project or a project that your manager has assigned entirely to you, or...some other configuration of people and resources? In other words, could you say a bit more? –  jcmeloni Dec 20 '12 at 19:29
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I think there's also an interesting corollary question: How should I handle bad news from subordinates/team-mates? –  Angelo Dec 20 '12 at 20:01
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@jcmeloni The main issue is that I'm the only person on what I've discovered is definitely a multi-person project :/ –  Yamikuronue Dec 20 '12 at 20:25
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If you think being the bearer of bad news is tough, wait til you fail to get a project on time without warning anyone and giving them an opportunity to help fix it. –  JeffO Dec 21 '12 at 15:32

11 Answers 11

up vote 33 down vote accepted

I would suggest a lot depends on the situation, and what you are looking for from your boss.

The key things for me in presenting bad news is to be prepared, and calm. You need to:

  • tell them the scope and scale of the issue; what is affected, and the impact

  • have understood the root cause of the issue, and be able to explain this

  • accept responsibility for any failures on your part

  • accept responsibility for any failures on the part of anyone you delegated work to

  • bring the manager into the loop as early as possible, rather than ambushing them

If there are financial implications, it’s also important to know if these are within your “delegated authority” to sign off, within your manager’s, or go higher than that.

It is very important to keep the situation high level, focused on the big picture, and calm. It is also very important to not get drawn into a “blamestorming” vortex – there’s time to update procedures and performance manage staff after the “event” has passed.

The next key issue is what is it you need to get from your manager:

  • forgiveness? (This is more important than you might think, in many cases)

  • approval on an action plan you have already developed?

  • feedback on an action plan you have put in place?

  • action on their part, with internal or external stakeholders?

  • advice on what to do?

  • full engagement and mangagement of the situation?

Be very clear on what you need the manager to do for you, however you can expect them to be frustrated if this is a repeat incident, and the root cause is the same. They may also want a higher level of engagement than you are suggesting.

Rightly or wrongly, people tend to get judged on how they manage a crisis of some sort – even in situations where good planning could have avoided a crisis in the first place.

Finally, while I wouldn’t suggest ever trying to put a “positive spin” on a situation when reporting an issue, in many cases “bad news” of some sort can create an opportunity that can be turned to the organisation’s advantage. We all forget every time the hotel hasn’t messed up our booking, but we all remember the room upgrades.

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I agree with the first steps you list-- these are the things the manager will expect. Unfortunately, many times the scope, root-cause, and responsibility are either completely unknown or unclear. One of the things that often makes a crisis an actual "crisis" is lack of information. Trying to root-cause a hot problem before coming to others for help could easily make a bad situation worse, at the same time rushing for help at the first sign of trouble is also bad. There are some nuances here, I think. –  Angelo Dec 20 '12 at 19:29
    
@Angelo - I agree its a balance, and a lot depends on the management style of the boss and organisation. I aim at the "situational leadership" model when I can, and so my expectation of my senior team members is a lot higher than my expectation of the juniors. I also believe that we learn from mistakes, and it takes exceptional people to be able to learn from the mistakes of others. The things that frustrate me are "learned helplessness" where staff never take any ownership of an issue, and always escalate, and "repeat offenders" where the same issue happens over and over again. –  GuyM Dec 20 '12 at 19:52
    
I think the main thing to this answer is "bringing the manager in as early as possible". This is exactly the type of problem managers are supposed to be solving, everything else is just window dressing. –  Chris Lively Apr 2 at 14:29

What I've found is that it helps to have a plan of attack. In this case, I need more resources. It's much more palatable to hear "This isn't working, I'll need X, Y, and Z to get it to work. Can that be arranged?" than "This isn't working, sorry, it's not getting done."

It also helps to remember that he needs to hear this in order to do his job; it's not a matter of ruining his day so much as alerting him to something that his job is partially to fix. In that sense, it's no different than an alert saying the server is down: while it sucks that the server is down, it's better to know about it so it can be fixed than to hear it from a customer later.

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Having a solution to get it back on track or get it heading toward completion is great... I would probably have a few others ready to go with numbers if you are going to miss the deadline by very much. Management likes to make sure that the issue has been thoroughly considered. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Dec 20 '12 at 19:26

Assuming the difficulties are recent

First of all, be honest and realistic about things and put it into perspective. If you don't think the project is going well now imagine how difficult it will be to tell him several weeks or months later you are unable to finish the project as needed.

Second, don't just show up without thoughts on the issue. Try to be able to answer:

  • What is actually the problem? Lack of knowledge? Lack of time? Lack of resources? Insufficient direction? etc.
  • What is the scope of the problem? Is it just your project? Will it affect large scale efforts elsewhere?
  • What can specifically be done to solve it? Can having more people work on it help fix it? Do you need additional software? Do you need to be excused from other less important priorities? Are you waiting on approvals? Etc.

You do not want to show up and go "sorry boss not going to finish on time, fyi!" and not be able to have a coherent conversation about it.

You want be:

  1. Aware there is a problem
  2. Working to fix the problem
  3. Seeking input on how to fix the problem

Last, make sure to realize no manager expects every project to be perfect. But what they do expect is to know when issues come up which affect project completion so they can reassign resources or help or adjust expectations as soon as possible. This is their job in some sense.

If this issues have existed for a long while...

Now if you and your team have been giving updates consistently for months saying things are going according to plan while being aware you are facing issues and now are suddenly in a "oh @#%#@ we aren't going to finish this WHAT DO WE DO" situation, this advice changes fairly significantly. At this point you need to approach the situation more delicately, because your manager will have a legitimate complaint. Make sure to approach a conversation along these lines from the perspective of, "Hello boss, can we talk about Project XXXX? We have been facing some issues which are going to affect our delivery - our team had thought we could overcome the difficulties but are not going to be able to. We should have talked with you sooner but had not expected them to be so significant."

You have made mistakes at this point (not informing the manager earlier) but still need to look forward.


This is also a really good reason to have weekly 1-on-1s with reports as this conversation should naturally occur during those times (especially for longer term projects). No one likes saying "we are not able to deliver." But people love saying "this project is too hard because we don't have XXXX" and so a manager can get that same information considerably easier via 1-on-1s.

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Great answer, you most certainly need to take a different approach if you have previously been glossing over issues because you thought you could get them sorted out unassisted. In that case, I would also suggest putting in some extra effort prior to meeting the boss to make sure that you're on top of all the info about the project (task tracker up to date, current list of what's outstanding, etc.) so you don't have to answer any of his questions with "I don't know" or "I'll have to check". –  Carson63000 Dec 20 '12 at 20:17

First things first, the very worst action you can take is to not tell the boss. I refer to this as Project management by wishful thinking. Hoping a problem will disappear will not make it disappear. So when this stuff happens, the sooner you tell your boss the better. One of the first rules of surviving in the workplace is never blindside your boss (for those in places where they don't play football, this means don't let him get hit by someone who isn't you with an issue that he doesn't know about). We all want to delay telling bad news, trust me if you do, the news gets worse.

So now what to say. If you have a reasonable boss, generally you tell him what the problem is, how you have attempted to fix it and what the action plan is and what actions you need him to authorize that you can't take on your own. And especially you tell him how long the delay will be. He may need to take some actions that you can't authorize, but you shouldn't expect him to come up with the solution. Be prepared to explore several alternatives and answer questions in depth. Be sure to point out the possibility of reducing scope as an alternative to completely missing a deadline.

He may need to pass the information up the chain to his boss or to the clients (external or internal) and will not be any happier than you are about it. So make sure he has what he needs to report the issue up.

If the problem is from some mistake you or your team made (and not something like a person quitting, so there was no one to work on it). Then admit the error. I have seen far more people get in serious trouble in the workplace for trying to hide something than for admitting up front that they made a mistake. Particularly when the admission comes with a plan of action to fix the mistake.

If you have a boss who is a screamer, just accept that he is going to scream and realize that he will scream less than if you told him even later. This goes for other unreasonable types. Remember admitting fault will defuse some of the unreasonable types. So will letting them know as soon as you can that there is a problem. When they can trust that you aren't going to hide the bad news and that you will have a plan to fix it, they tend to ease up a bit in my experience. A control freak is always going to want to tweak your plan, so leave him an obvious place to do so. That makes him less likely to tweak the very thing you need most.

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+1: Offer a solution to the problem is a good idea –  Fredrik Dec 20 '12 at 21:19
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+1 for "boss who is a screamer" and the advice on "managing up" when faced with a tough situation. "Admit the error" is also a key point in my opinion - a pre-emptive apology and acceptance of accoutability (even if you were not strictly responsible) can work well to take the heat out of a situation in some cultures. –  GuyM Dec 20 '12 at 21:26

How can I approach my boss with bad news?

Here's how you can approach your boss with bad news:

  1. Do it rarely.
  2. Do it early.
  3. Do it with a well-considered strategy to remedy the issue.

Here's a deeper explanation:

  1. When managers are looking to hire direct reports, they're looking for people who can solve problems and perform the work that they are hired to do. Most managers will not expect their direct reports to be perfect, but they will expect them to be mostly self-sufficient. Therefore, reports of bad news should be rare.
  2. The act of reporting bad news is often a request for help. That's why it's important to report bad news early. Reporting bad news early gives your boss an opportunity to carefully consider the problem and either directly intervene or offer guidance.
  3. Most bosses hate seeing their direct reports act the part of "a man overboard, crying out for a life preserver." So strive to never be "that guy". When you must report bad news to your boss, prepare a well-considered strategy for solving the problem beneath your "bad news". Even if it's only a partial solution to the problem, a well-considered strategy will demonstrate effort on your part to remedy the issue.

EDIT: In response to other answers, I'd like to add that honesty is a 'must' and excuses should be avoided. In a healthy organization, there will be time for a post-mortem meeting later.

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To build on the other answers, I would suggest being honest upfront and avoiding passive aggression of trying to give good news before the bad. I've been on both ends of the passive aggressive way of saying, "Here's some good news, now here's some bad news" and in the end, usually it feels like a cover up or manipulation.

  1. Be honest about what you need and where you're at as far as the project.
  2. Take responsibility where you can. It's unlikely that it's all one person's fault, so accepting and being honest where an error was made will help.
  3. The earlier to communicate problems, the better. I've learned in many situations that trying to fix problems - without communicating their existence first - creates bigger problems later. So if it feels to heavy now, it'll only be worse in time.
  4. Keep expectations in mind: bad news means that we're failing someone's expectations and we consider that, we can usually begin to tell where we need to exceed them.
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Short answer: Depends on the boss.

Longer answer:

The boss got to be the boss by solving problems. He was thus granted more power to solve problems. That is his job, really; to use you to solve the problems other people bring him, and to use other things he can control to solve the problems you bring him.

So, the key with most bosses is to state the bad news in terms of a problem to be fixed. The problem is "we don't have enough resources to get this project done by the deadline". By "resources" I will assume you mean warm bodies coding, but it could also be expertise, or client input, or materials money (usually minor for IT jobs, but servers, networking equipment etc can be some pretty big-ticket items).

When presented with a problem, the boss now considers options:

  • Add warm bodies to the project to increase man-hours.
  • Approve overtime for the warm bodies that exist to increase man-hours (or, much more likely, just tell all the salary slaves to get back to work and not go home till it's done).
  • Go find more money for materials expenses.
  • Get the schedule extended to there are enough man-hours to do the job.
  • Get the scope reduced so what's left is doable with the available man-hours.

You don't have the authority to do any of this; that's why you're bringing it to your boss.

The only caveat in the whole thing is, you must bring problems to your boss while things can still be done to resolve them. If you see, three months out, that you're going to miss a deliverable, there's time to fix things by moving some people or dates around. If it's due tomorrow and there's 3 days' work left even if you all worked flat-out from now till the deadline, there's nothing to do but ask why you couldn't tell him sooner.

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The simplest thing that you can do is:

  • Prepare a list of what has been achieved over a period say last 3-6 months. This will help to explain your boss that you were really working hard to achieve the objective and you have managed to do accomplish something.
  • Then make another list of pending task with effort needed to complete them. Then map this against the deadline you have been given to complete the whole work. Now tell your boss that in order to complete the work on time you would need additional resources. If for whatever reason additional resources cannot be provided ask him move the deadline accordingly.
  • Keep a record of this communication (you may need it later on).
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Hi Parez, welcome to the Workplace SE. How would you approach your boss with bad news? Can you edit your post to answer the question? Your post is a better last-ditch alternative, whereas the asker is simply asking how to communicate better. Hope this helps. –  jmort253 Dec 21 '12 at 22:13
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Good edits Parvez! Again, welcome to our community! :) –  jmort253 Dec 24 '12 at 2:26

Unfortunately bad news is always bad news.

In a professional environment however it is always sort after to have an honest person, where appropriate, and to always show initiative. Such as in this case the critical but bad news is that the task can not be achieved. Also say you have worked hard to get the project this far and then tell the boss you should be able to reach this revised date with the current resources. Also lead on with an alternative deadline with revised resources.

Keep in mind you maybe surprised to hear the boss has shortened the deadline, as they normaly do, giving you a much needed extension.

Also a word of advice, people are, or more accurately, should not be shot for giving bad news as the only way to resolve something is to find out the issue first.

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There are lots of good answers here, but I want to emphasize one thing in particular:

  • Do it as early as possible

Put yourself into your boss's shoes. If there is a problem, when the boss has time to address it, they have a lot more options. Consider the following two scenarios:

Let's say you have a month remaining to finish a project, which involves providing a deliverable to a customer. You are confident that for whatever reason, it's going to take two months, with a best case scenario of six weeks, and a worst case scenario of three months.

First, let's consider the scenario where you put it off until the deadline. Let's assume everything goes according to plan, to make this scenario as good as it can possibly be. Here is the current situation.

  • You've known about a problem for a month and told no one
  • You are going to miss your deadline by two weeks
  • The customer is going to be surprised and upset

And that's the best case! Imagine it's the worst case, where you actually have two more months of work to do.

Now, consider the scenario where you told him right away, that you expect it to take a month.

Your boss can:

  • Attempt to give you more resources, maybe loan you people from another team or help you himself in a more hands-on way
  • Warn the customer that there are some delays, so that the customer can juggle their own schedule and possibly handle the late delivery gracefully
  • Think of creative solutions that you haven't thought of, with time to execute them
  • Help you to mitigate the problem and ensure you will hit that best case time

Now consider what happens when it turns out that you're WRONG about the project requiring additional time:

  • If you didn't tell him, then all you did is make a deadline
  • If you did tell him, then the WORST thing is that your boss thinks that you worry a little too much. Which isn't really a problem at all.

There is no downside to communicating timeframes early and often with your boss.

This article is about programming - you haven't stated whether you are a programmer or not, but I think it's relevant for everyone: Three point estimation

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I think a consensus has taken shape, and I am going to add to it. Your boss has access to resources and has options to act that you don't have and more than that, you boss has better access to the whole picture than you do, so escalating the issue to the boss as early as possible is the best and most effective course of action. Your boss can:

(1) suggest and authorize alternative approaches to the issue

(2) assign some of the strongest staff to back you up

(3) decide that this project is not worth continuing, and just kill it

(4) lower the priority and extend the deadline on the project and tell you to work on something else that's worth more to him

(5) take the project from you and assign it to somebody else, at no prejudice to you

(6) adjust the deadline and the task requirements and tell you to continue on the project

(7) tell you to continue the project and tell you that it's your choice between the project being completed on time and your head on a silver platter :)

(8) decide that your project is mission critical and throw all resources available into the project, even if the word "available" includes the taking of resources from other projects.

If you have a solid handle as to why this project is in trouble, your communication with the boss can increase the boss's regard for you as an effective, capable subordinate and professional who can be trusted to deliver bad news in a timely way, unless the boss is a total idiot and ignoramus - and I have had a couple of bosses who are idiots and ignoramuses and in one case, incredibly conceited, too :) Again, telling the boss as early as possible is critical because the earlier you tell, the more and better options are available to the boss and the more likely the boss is going to be grateful for your early intervention - yes, telling the boss he bad news early and competently is actually an intervention on your part, and a positive intervention at that :)

I presume that you are enough of a professional not to tell your boss anything without figuring out at least partially why you are in trouble because if someone did that to me, I'd be very, awfully annoyed. If you were a manager or a boss, how would YOU feel about a subordinate who tells you that a project is failing but the subordinate is unable to tell you which parts of the projects are in trouble, what is the trouble and why? The least you should do is lay out the facts clearly and succinctly so that the manager can make the decision without reproducing your entire body of work in the project. And again, if I had to reproduce your body of work on the project to figure out what you did and didn't do because you couldn't tell me, you are out.

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