BAD NEWS... is something we all have to deliver
It's inevitable that we'll have to communicate bad news at some point. This framework provides you with the best possible chance of achieving a positive outcome at the end of a difficult conversation
There is no shortage of advice and resources out there which aim to help good Product Managers become great Product Managers. Whether you’re looking to develop your product execution, strategy or discovery skills, if you’re looking to move the needle on your product then you can rest assured there’s a blog, substack or full-blown course with a certification for you.
But what about the other side of product management? The trickier, thornier side when things aren’t going well? We’ve all been there when releases have been late, OKRs haven’t been met or stakeholders are just generally unhappy. As product leaders we’re also often people managers and, in the current climate, this unfortunately sometimes means that we need to break bad news to our teams, and to those who we coach.
The bad news is that we need to give bad news. The good news is that there’s a framework you can follow to ensure the best possible outcome.
Communicating bad news is an art form in itself and, as such, it’s a skill that we need to hone so that we’re ready when these situations arise. How we conduct ourselves when delivering bad news can have a massive impact on our outcomes, client relationships and - most importantly - the emotions of those impacted.
Here’s what you can do to minimise the unfortunately inevitable effects of bad news:
Start with “Where” and “How”
When communicating bad news, context is everything. If you’re the person who’s been asked to deliver this message, chances are you know the recipient better than anyone. You know if a phone call or face to face message is best (top tip: it usually is), or if they’re likely to respond better to an email which they can read, digest and respond to in their own time. There is no one single answer here so consider carefully the individual or group that you’re communicating with and how to ensure the best outcome for them at the end of the process.
Set the right tone from the outset
How you open the conversation can have a massive bearing on how the rest of the conversation plays out. Consider carefully expressions such as “There’s no easy way to say this.” If it’s really bad news (for example a redundancy, or a major error on the product team’s side) then perhaps this is appropriate. It will help set expectations for the recipient(s) for what’s about to come; however, if the bad news isn’t as severe (for example, a small delay or a minor change in team shape) this can cause unnecessary concern or fear, especially in these uncertain economic times. Try a softer opening in this case, and provide reassurance up front that you’re the person who’s going to fix things, e.g “I do have bad news, but don’t worry, I’ve already figured out how we’re going to resolve this.”
In fact, before you even get to the point of delivering the bad news, put some thought towards how you’re going to get the other person on the other end of the phone (literally or figuratively). A clear but unalarming description of what the conversation is going to be about can help manage expectations without escalating.
Get to the point
By this stage, the recipient already knows they’re about to receive bad news. There’s no point sugar coating it and it certainly doesn’t help to be vague in terms of the situation that is unfolding. However, it’s also important to minimise the chances of this becoming a confrontation. Keep it objective, unbiased and concise. You’re going to want to quickly get onto the support you can offer and the options that the affected individual or individuals have available to them.
Catch them before they fall
Providing bad news without a means of support is a potentially hazardous way of delivering it. Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient. If you’d just been given some bad news - no matter how minor or major - your natural first thought would likely be “What support is available to me now? Who can help?”
That may well be you making yourself available for follow up conversations, dedicated one-to-ones or spending time following up on any questions they might have. Or it might be pointing them in the direction of dedicated support teams and tools that can give specialised support. Whatever is most relevant to the situation, it’s important that the available support is communicated clearly and promptly.
Co-create next steps and actions
As well as providing support, you also want to explore potential solutions or the options that the recipient has. Either prepare these in advance as discussion points, or sit and uncover them in the session. If the news is people-related, the recipient is likely to be feeling a bit lost, helpless, and uncertain about what the future holds. Laying out the paths they could take and empowering them to choose the option or options that work best for them can go a long way towards helping them feel like they are in control, and that there is a path they can take to improve their situation.
For a product problem, that could be what you personally or the team are going to do to get things back on track. Make this collaborative - set out the options available and agree collectively on which way forward is best, and why. You can have a preferred approach - you can even state what it is - but taking everyone on the journey with you can really help to create a sense that you’re all working together to make things right.
Exit the conversation with a plan of action
Leaving the conversation in the right way is just as important as everything that’s preceded it. You don’t always have to leave things on a positive note - sometimes it might help, other times it might be inappropriate. What’s more important is that everyone leaves the conversation with the following:
A shared understanding of the problem - ask them to play back their understanding of what they’ve heard and what their options are, and play back to them what you’ve heard from them and what actions you’ve agreed to take.
A chance to follow up - what you’ve just discussed may or may not have been a shock. Even with thorough preparation and the best of intentions, the conversation may not have gone well. In all likelihood, it will be a lot for them to get their head round. Offer a chance to discuss further once they’ve had time to digest everything they’ve heard and gather their thoughts.
Clear next steps - state explicitly what will happen next, with actions and owners. Make this specific, take as much ownership yourself as possible and provide timeframes. This will help retain confidence in you and your ability to create the best possible outcome from this difficult situation.
Increase the odds of a positive outcome
In summary, delivering bad news is an occupational hazard for us as Product Managers. Every time you have to deliver bad news will be unique. The message, context and recipients will be different each time but by following the steps above you can make a real difference to the impact this news will have on your colleagues and clients.
You can’t guarantee a positive outcome but by preparing up front, putting yourselves in their shoes and having a clear plan of action you can significantly increase the odds.
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