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 of 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 don’t have the capability to do what’s being asked
  • We don’t have the capability, despite assuming otherwise (trickier)
  • We don’t have the resources to support it – be it time, money or executive sign-off
  • The request simply isn’t feasible (trickiest)

I’m pretty careful about not overpromising or overstating what I know to be 100% possible. So usually, as long as I set expectations properly, these conversations aren’t too terrible!

But once in a while, the dominoes will 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?

Two things to consider are 1) the person’s preference OR 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 beyond your control? Stand by that. Don’t apologize for something that you couldn’t have helped.

And what if you know who is responsible? Sometimes it’s our leaders, vendors, or even the stakeholder themself (!) who drops the ball. Be candid and objective. Focus your explanation on the outcome of those mis-steps (“we were delayed when X didn’t get done”) rather than blaming/speculating about individual responsibility.

5. Be careful in how you assume responsibility.

There will be times when you drop the ball. We’re human, after all! When that happens, own it. Lay out those mis-steps and keep it moving.

Now 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.

6. Acknowledge their disappointment.

This is just human interaction 101. You can’t change this outcome. But you can at least (genuinely) 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!

Outcome aside, it helps to know if/how these circumstances can be avoided 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!

Share your thoughts!