How to deliver bad news to project stakeholders

Here are four approaches that project managers can take when sharing tough news with stakeholders.

bad news

Image: iStockphoto/fizkes

There are a number of methods that a project manager can use in various situations when it's time to announce bad news. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Remain objective and share the facts;
  • Discourage emotional responses and work to maintain calm;
  • Communicate bad news face-to-face or through video conferencing if necessary;
  • Ensure all stakeholders receive the message that is relevant and appropriate to their needs; and
  • Allow for two-way dialogue to ensure everyone has a chance to share their thoughts, advice, and potential solutions. 

SEE: 24 tips for delivering bad news (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

4 strategies for announcing bad news to stakeholders

Here are four common ways that project managers can share unfavorable news with stakeholders. Depending on the situation, the group or team dynamics, and the implications of the news, there are potential consequences to using one delivery technique over the others.

1. Be direct and to the point

The most simple and direct method has the potential to be the most damaging approach to delivering bad news. Some people might prefer this, while others may find it to blunt or insensitive. 

When dealing with senior executives or project sponsors, it may be best to use this approach, as their schedules are likely packed, and they may prefer a candid and concise conversation. 

This approach could also be used for delivering news relating to a merger or acquisition in order to avoid a leak from other sources, which could generate fear and confusion. 

2. Wait and see approach

In some situations, project managers may choose to say nothing, hoping that if they instead take action to rectify issues, things might improve. When the implications of a mistake are minimal, this technique may actually be useful--if a project manager is confident that things can be resolved quickly and effectively.

Note: This approach has to be evaluated carefully on a case-by-case basis, and only if the project manager has a clear idea of the impact on the entire project, as this can be very tricky. Experience with this approach is a must. 

3. Heads-up

If an issue exists that may or may not have a significant impact on your project, a project manager might choose to give stakeholders a heads-up to help prepare everyone. 

In this type of scenario, it's important to come prepared with a plan to deal with potential issues and provide reassurances about how it will be resolved--this gives everyone a chance to digest the news and mentally prepare. Make sure to keep all stakeholders up-to-date as situations unfold.

4. Advance scenario planning

If several negative situations appear on the horizon, a project manager may choose to conduct some scenario planning with relevant stakeholders to get the jump on issues. Discussing these likely negative scenarios and asking all participants to be objective while obtaining their input makes them part of the decision-making process. 

This approach is beneficial, as the participants can have more confidence and control, instead of simply hearing that bad news is looming. When a team is able to have an impact on the decision or solution, it enables them to get past the fear so they can utilize their energy in tackling the issue faster.  

Conclusion

Bad news is not easy to share, regardless of the circumstances and outcome. As a project manager, you should carefully assess each scenario and determine the best approach that gives stakeholders confidence in the project and you as a leader. 

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