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Tech tips for social impact professionals. Do well at doing good.

How to Deliver Bad News to Staff Stakeholders


Aw, sugar. That’s my first thought anytime I’ve got bad news.

If you’ve ever had to deliver bad news to a colleague, you know it’s a delicate dance. No one wants to hear that they can’t have what they want. Especially in tech!

But sometimes, this is the nature of work. When you’re beholden to a group of stakeholders, be they staff or other constituents, you can’t make everyone happy all the time.

Speaking from Experience

Being in a technical role, I’m no stranger to this problem. Whenever I’m breaking bad news to someone, it’s usually for one of four reasons:

  • We very clearly don’t have the capability
  • We don’t have the capability, but assumed otherwise (trickier)
  • We don’t have the resources to support it
  • The request isn’t feasible, for data-y reasons (trickiest)

BTW, setting expectations is important. I try not to overpromise or overstate what I don’t know to be 100% possible.

But once in a while, the dominoes fall in a way that makes the news more fraught. 😬 That’s where these tips come in handy.

How to Deliver Bad News to Stakeholders

1. Choose how you deliver the news

How are you having this discussion: in writing (email, Slack, etc.) or in-person?

Three things to consider are 1) the person’s preference, 2) the communication culture at your org, and 2) the severity of the news. For something low-stakes, an email might be enough without overblowing the situation. But if the outcome sets back a major initiative, a face-to-face conversation can help you deliver the news more delicately.

2. Cut to the chase

There’s a difference between small talk and dancing around a conversation because you’re anxious to deliver bad news! Be delicate, but direct. It’s a better use of everyone’s time and minimizes the potential for drama.

3. Share the reason, but be succinct

Stakeholders deserve to know why something can’t happen. Yet the real reason can sometimes involve lots of small details…or in some orgs, an intricate web of politics.

Resist the temptation to get bogged down by those details. Even if they’re true, those pieces are usually more distracting than helpful. Instead, offer a high-level reason that gets to the heart of those driving factors.

4. Be careful in how you assign blame

Was this outcome totally beyond your control? Stand by that. Don’t apologize for something that you couldn’t have helped.

But what if this is because someone else dropped the ball? Sometimes it’s an executive, vendor, the stakeholder themself (!) or another staff person causing the wedge. In that case, be candid & objective. Focus your explanation on the outcome of those mis-steps (“we were delayed when X didn’t get done”) rather than blaming or speculating about individual responsibility.

5. Be careful in how you assume responsibility.

There will be times when you drop the ball. When that happens, own it. Lay out those mis-steps and keep it moving.

To all my over-apologizers out there…I get it. You feel bad! But don’t dwell on those mistakes or wallow in guilt. The point isn’t to unload how bad you feel onto the other person. It’s about giving them information that they need to process what is (or isn’t) happening.

6. Acknowledge any disappointment

This is just human interaction 101. You can’t change the outcome. But you can at least acknowledge how it impacts the other person.

This small gesture can resonate with your colleagues. And shared understanding is the best place you can land in a situation like this.

7. Share lessons for next time

When there isn’t a perfect resolution or alternative, there’s (hopefully) at least some lessons learned. Have a dialogue where you can both share takeaways on how to collaborate on similar projects in the future.

8. Offer the next best thing.

This outcome was a bust. But are there other options that can offset some of the consequences?

It’s okay if the answer is no. Some decisions are black and white. But where there’s gray area, see if there are any out-of-the-box ideas that can turn the tide.

That’s it!

Go out there and deliver that bad news like a champ.


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