Breaking Bad News

15 September, 2014

In a recent posting, J. Leroy Ward was extremely critical of the way Microsoft broke the news of impending layoffs to its employees. This set me thinking. As Project Managers, we frequently have to be the bearers of bad news, so what is the best way to break this news?

Telling an employee, particularly a project team member, that s/he is being made redundant, ranks as probably the most difficult news to break. However, telling a team member that their preferred assignment has gone to someone else, or letting end customers know that their pet features will not be ready on time are also difficult.

For a Project Manager, communication is vital. The Project Management Institute’s research has shown that Project Managers spend between 75% and 90% of their time communicating. Unfortunately, some of that effort will go into communicating bad news, so Project Managers need to become adept at this. By tackling bad news carefully, this unpleasant task may even yield unexpected benefits.

The first step is to arrange a face-to-face meeting. Leroy Ward’s main criticism of the Microsoft layoff memo was that it was a memo – an impersonal communication. Indeed, if the CEO’s of these massive corporations had to go through face-to-face sessions with every employee they discard, they might be a little less keen on arbitrary dismissals – people, they might realize, are not simply entries on a balance sheet. But at Project Manager-level, the face-to-face meeting is the most appropriate forum for bad news.

Once in the meeting, the first sentence the Project Manager utters must be the bad news. “We will be letting you go at the end of the month”; “Your time-keeping has been totally unacceptable this past month”; “We will not be able to fulfil your order by end of quarter”. The bad news must be broken and breaking it with both barrels as it were is the only way to do it effectively.

Do not try to prepare the person for the bad news. Do not waffle on about how times are bad, or list out the risks that have materialized. Whatever, you do, do not try to get the person to feel sorry for you – “This hurts me, more than it hurts you”. Just get to the point.

Once the bad news is broken, you need to assess the situation. Depending on the news and on the individual concerned, there can be a variety of reactions. Some will be angry, others despondent; some may even be delighted – I have seen a customer who was pleased that we would miss our delivery deadline because his own preparations for our product were also running late; now he would have something external to blame!

Your next step is to explain the rationale. Why do we need to let staff go; why is timekeeping such an issue, why is the project running late. This is particularly important in disciplinary situations: it is very important to identify problem behaviours and to relate your concerns and any disciplinary steps to the behaviour, rather than to the individual.

If possible, the Project Manager now needs to outline possible courses of action. For instance, if the project’s Earned Value figures show that we are running behind schedule and/or over-budget, the powers that be would like to know what can be done to correct the situation. The wise Project Manager will present crashing and fast-tracking options, as well as low-impact scope reductions.

Unfortunately, some bad news does not offer any options. If someone is being laid off, there is little to offer in the way of alternatives. However, the Project Manager should make clear what happens next. In a redundancy situation, the Project Manager might have done some research into the job market and provide the employee with a list of competitors who are hiring. S/he might also provide a reference at the meeting.

This process comes across as very inhumane. Project Managers reading this might imagine very terse meetings going like this: “You’re fired. Our revenues have dropped 46% in the last year, we no longer can afford the number of engineers that we have, so we have decided to scale back in your specialist area. This is no reflection on you, as this reference demonstrates. Have a nice day.”

While it is important for the Project Manager, tasked with breaking the bad news, to be objective and clear, it is also vital to listen and to provide a forum for the recipient of the news to vent whatever feelings the news provokes. Expect anger, frustration, tears, threats, even total hysteria. Let the reaction run its course; be sympathetic, but objective at the same time. Whatever you do, do not look for sympathy for yourself. Project Managers have responded to team members’ reactions to bad news by complaining about the stress all this has had on them.  

Another mistake Project Managers can make is to divorce themselves from the decision - “I think it is a big mistake to let someone as good as you go”. This has the opposite effect usually – “If you are so concerned about me, why didn’t you fight this decision?” If you are the one tasked with breaking the news, you should take ownership of it.

While breaking bad news is one of the downsides of the Project Manager role, Velopi’s project management training courses cover all aspects of project management. If you would like to develop your skills in this area, our project management certification courses are held in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway for your convenience. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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