Trust me, I have bad news

General Musings

Colin Powell is often credited with the saying “Bad news isn’t wine, it doesn’t improve with age”. Whether he coined the phrase or not, it’s a sentiment that I completely agree with.  In my work, dealing with clients with demanding projects sometimes means that I need to deliver what may be described as ‘bad news’.  However, I am of the opinion that we can make life simpler for ourselves and take some of the stress out of delivering bad news in a business setting.

If I make a promise to do something for a friend at a future date, and then fail to make good on that promise, then my friend is disappointed.   People do this with our children all the time. Making promises only to let them down because something important came up at work or in the complex world we live in.

With children the event that caused the broken promise maybe hard to grasp and it is therefore difficult for children to accept a broken promise, whatever the reason.  In business, our stakeholders will also find it hard to accept a broken promise unless we help them comprehend the reasons.

I have the same basic model for all commitments that I make.  Its nuanced however and with friends and family there is a different balance than there is with business and stakeholder management.  We can consider two things that relate to providing the context for a commitment.  Both are interrelated and many may consider them to be ‘Common Sense’ but all too often I see people making hard work of these two basics of good quality ‘commitment management’.  

Manage the expectation

Managing expectations is not about being flaky or vague.  It’s not about never making commitments or promises and it’s certainly not about qualifying every single commitment that we make with a ‘get out of jail’ clause.

It is about giving people a fuller picture of the world and the things that may knock us off course or change the future. It’s about developing a good feel for probability of events and determining when we can be really certain and when we need to let others know of the potential pitfalls and dangers. 

We don’t do it enough and all too often we make promises that have a low probability of being fulfilled and we do that because all too often we don’t like to tell people things that they may perceive as ‘bad news’.

Project managers out there may say this is basic contracting or risk management.  I agree that is important, but I think we need to be more intimate than that.  It is important to engage in a personal way, since at the core of the ‘bad news’ problem is trust and strong trust is not accomplished through documented contracts and documented risks but through honesty, openness and intimacy.

Getting that balance right is an art, especially if we don’t want to make any commitment worthless. However, if done well, it brings the world of the promisor and promisee much closer together it  builds strong mutual trust and in terms of the ‘age of the bad news’ …. it’s right there at birth. 

Clearly though things can happen that mean a promise is going to be unfulfilled. The future is uncertain.

Manage the message

Relaying the simple fact that a promise has been broken, is not enough. Once again we must consider a larger picture.  Providing context and alternatives is vital.  Handled badly and we see an erosion of trust that can disappear to nothing. Again, it is an art and delivering bad news early with options and a plan, goes a long way to retaining some trust.

In my experience what makes a significant difference is the confidence and positive manner that bad news is delivered in.  It really is about managing the message.  It is about providing the context for why the promise is broken, why it can be rectified and the facts of the new situation on the ground. It’s about delivering all this early, with confidence and with a plan for succeeding.

I have seen IT professionals with clients nervously explaining that a milestone has slipped and yet, they are unable to provide a new date for the milestone to be achieved, unable to reference back to any risk that have now materialised, unable to explain tangible reasons for slippage, unable to display any confidence that they have a handle on the situation and unable to explain why they did not deliver the bad news earlier.  The clients expression is one of experiencing a very bad taste indeed.

These nervous individuals are otherwise competent people, who appear to have buried their heads, hiding from the perceived pain  of delivering bad news.  When their heads finally emerge, they find that rebuilding trust is infinitely more difficult when that trust has completely disappeared.

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