Delivering bad news is never easy but get the tone right and you might just emerge unscathed
In every accountant’s life the day will come when you have to deliver some
Sometimes your unwitting audience will be your line manager, a junior
colleague, occasionally your client and in the worst cases your board.
But regardless of who is on the receiving end of the message, your delivery
can determine how you, the messenger, are treated. Get it right, and it can be
the making of a manager. Get it wrong and it’s more likely to be a career
In recent years several tomes of legislation and best practice rules have
been brought out to ensure that UK boards are truly accountable. This has
reinforced the need for ethics in business life. But it also means the
likelihood that you will face a potential crisis situation at some point in your
career is greater than ever.
You may uncover a blatant breach of accounting standards, an unwise use of
creative accounting methods or pressure to speed up the reporting of good news
or delay bad news, resulting in a biased view of company performance.
Then there are the more mundane trials and tribulations of working life,
which can be just as nerve-wracking – whether it’s telling your client that a
computer crashed and vital files have been lost; or addressing the under
performance of a member of staff.
All in the delivery
In these scenarios, it is important to be able to deliver and receive bad
news without alienating others – in other words, how you handle the issues and
their effect on people is vital. Those in charge need to have accurate and
timely information to solve a problem and it’s your duty to provide them with
First, you need to consider whether you are the best person to deliver the
news or whether a colleague has more relevant knowledge – although be wary of
using this as an excuse to pass the buck.
British business culture has traditionally taken what could be described as a
euphemistic, indirect approach to communicating negative feedback. We have
tended to favour a watered-down, politically correct form of communicating that
does nobody any good.
In today’s climate, whether communicating up or down, people can also be very
nervous about saying what they really think and feel.
Delivering bad news upwards involves enormous courage, especially in a client
situation. Similarly, many employees avoid communicating difficult messages
downwards because of the tricky HR and legal issues that can arise.
Understanding the legalities of any situation before taking action is
Relating bad news sympathetically, considerately and directly is both
professional and effective – you certainly don’t have to be brutal and hostile.
Make sure you have your facts straight, particularly if a serious allegation
has been made. It is embarrassing and damaging to your credibility to get the
small things wrong when discussing the bigger picture.
It is your duty to grasp the nettle and not shy away from uncomfortable
Our desire to be liked makes it more difficult to relay bad news. But
effective managers are those who place more emphasis on being respected. They
also need to be available, empathetic, and appreciative of their team’s input
and open to feedback.
In the last 15 years, UK boards and the profession have come a long way in
recognising that ethical business practices are not a mere inconvenience; this
is due in large measure to a new emphasis on the ‘people’ aspect of good
governance, prompted by the the Higgs and Smith reports amongst others.
This makes building the right skills in areas like delivering bad news and
handling conflict more crucial than ever.
Maxine Lange is founder of business psychology firm ML Consulting
GOOD WAYS TO GIVE BAD NEWS
Don’t put them on the defensive
Try to discern what is most important to the person receiving the information
and what they might find threatening. An argument supported by facts is less
likely to be seen as a personal attack.
Clarity of communication is paramount. Pre-plan the conversation,making sure you
have identified the main issues and potential problems. Bear in mind that when
people are shocked or upset, emotion can disrupt their ability to process
Let it sink in
Give others the opportunity to absorb the information. Often they will not take
anything in after the first couple of sentences, so be prepared for questions.
Confirm key points
At the end, ask them to confirm key points and actions to ensure your message
has got through. Experience shows that time and again an audience is actually
left confused with very little idea of what was being communicated.
Devise a plan of action
Be clear about areas which still need to be worked on and the resources you may
need to call upon. Break down the problem into a series of detailed ‘next steps’
rather than seeing it as a large and daunting mountain to climb.