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Never Let Your Boss Be Surprised By Bad News

by Ramon Greenwood

There is only one thing worse than delivering bad news to your boss. That is not raising the red flag when you know trouble is brewing, because it is a cardinal sin to let your boss be surprised.

No organization escapes the negatives forever. Budgets are not met. Deliveries are late. Machines don't work. People are caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

It is important to your career success to learn how to deliver ill tidings, as well as how to receive them.

There are at least four major things wrong with failing to blow the whistle when stuff hits the fan.

First, ignoring bad stuff won't make it go away. It's bound to surface sooner or later, probably at the worst possible time.

Second, most problems can be fixed, wholly or in part, if addressed soon enough.

Third, left unattended, most problems simply get bigger and more difficult with time.

Fourth, when you fail to report the bad news, you are leaving your boss vulnerable to being blindsided with a problem and the accusation from his boss that he doesn't have control of his organization.

Forget any notion that you may be a hero when you have to carry the problems to your boss, no matter who's at fault. Chances are you will take some bruises; whistleblowers are not popular. In ancient times, kings cut off the heads of messengers who brought bad news.

Five Steps To Defuse The Situation

There is really no easy way to report disappoints and shortfalls; however, you can take five steps to help defuse the situations and ease the pain.

1. Have all of the facts in hand. Report them succinctly; no dodging and ducking.

2. Be patient; let the boss vent his or her anger and frustration.

3. Offer a solution, or at least some way to cut the losses.

4. Don't be defensive. If you are solely to blame, take the heat yourself; don't try to lay it off on others. However, if a group of which you are a part is at fault be sure you report in the "we" mode. Try to depersonalize the matter as much as possible.

5. Be sure to make a practice of reporting good news, too. Avoid being identified as one who always bears ill tidings.

How To Receive Bad News

Just as it is important to quickly and accurately report bad news, it is necessary to know how to handle the storm warnings that are reported to you. These four steps will help.

1. Stay calm and collected when an associate reports bad news to you. If you have a reputation of blowing up when such reports are made, you discourage the flow of information that is necessary to function as a leader.

2. Don't go off half-cocked. Gather all the facts: who, what, when, where, why? Define the locale, type and extent of the problem as quickly as possible. Assess the damage. And double-check your information.

3. Initiate damage control ASAP.

4. Report the situation to your boss in the same fashion as you expect to be reported to. If you have been able to clear up the problem, report it anyway. Get credit for handling the matter without taking up his time.

If you have not been able to eliminate the problem, explain the steps you have already taken to prevent further damage, along with your recommendations for getting rid of the cause of the problem.

Hopefully, you are working for an organization where the messenger gets shot only if he's late with the news.

Ramon Greenwood is Senior Career Counselor for He is a former Senior Vice President at American Express, a published author and syndicated columnist, a professional director and an entrepreneur.

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