The Art of Delivering Bad News (and Good News) Effectively

Lisa Regan

One of the most critical parts of the role that a project manager must perform is giving feedback to team members. This is particularly important when their performance is falling short of what you might expect and you need to deliver bad news. This is the part of the role that nobody really likes and can often make for unpleasant conversations. Tempers can flare, and emotions run high. With this in mind, all too often a project manager can prepare for the meeting in such a way that results in honest discussion being somewhat stifled, and this makes effective feedback communication difficult.

The good news is that these conversations, just like many of the other more tricky conversations that a project manager may have to have during the life of a project, do not have to be so tricky. When you change your mind-set when delivering negative feedback, you improve the chances of the project outcome being successful. Productive conversations don’t damage relationships within a team and can help your team members to make real improvements to their performance going forward.

The importance of effective communication

Communication on all levels and of all different types is incredibly important for any project team who want to achieve success in their projects. Ensuring that lines of communication are kept open is the first step that must be taken if you want to be certain that everyone feels like they are being kept in the loop and valued.

When it comes to risk in your project you must have clear and transparent communication, not only with the members of the team but also with the project stakeholders as well. Whether this communication takes place face-to-face, over the phone or in an email, there must be good lines of communication, or you run the risk that the project will fail.

At the very start of the project it is a good idea to find out the best way to communicate with your stakeholders. Whilst they will all want to be updated on any risks, there will be those that prefer to be told in person or over the phone and those who may prefer a short email that can then lead to a further conversation. Whatever type of communication your stakeholders prefer, make a note so that you know exactly who you should be contacting and how. A busy person who prefers to deal with emails may not be happy to take a phone call when they are dealing with other tasks.

One other point to remember when it comes to communication with stakeholders is that you will probably be communicating with them in a more formal way than you would communicate with other members of the project team.

The Ultimate Guide To
Project Communication

Framing your feedback

If everything were perfect then corrective feedback of any kind would be accepted with an open mind. There might be a few questions to clarify some issues, but that would be it and then over time the necessary improvements would be seen. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

Everyone needs feedback for professional development so you need to know how to frame your feedback in a way that is helpful, to take what has been said and use it for their own development.

Whether you realise it or not, when we find ourselves facing a situation or a decision, we frame it in a certain way. At its simplest this is the decision maker’s image of a situation, i.e. the way in which they see the circumstances and elements that might surround a decision. This frame gives boundaries and dimensions to the decision. It might include which issues are being looked at, which components are included, and which are not, and how the problem may be solved or a successful outcome reached.

All too often managers frame decisions and situations in a way that is seen as too narrow, where there are no alternatives included or considered, and where there are only win and lose options. And this is where it can be difficult to have a full and frank conversation about something because the framework has already been set.

Easing in – the dangers

Once you have delivered bad news on a number of occasions it is all too easy to think about falling into the idea that it is better to soften bad news with good news. This is a way of avoiding those confrontations that are uncomfortable. It uses a more indirect approach and means that they can make up their mind about something in advance and then try to bring others round to the same conclusion. Whilst this may at first glance seem fairer and more open, it is still rather narrow, and has a binary framing that is likely to remain frozen.

Make your feedback more acceptable

When it comes to communicating feedback of any type, there are ways in which you can make it more acceptable, and this means considering how to offer more effective critique. You need to be able to recognise the bias that may colour the development of your feedback and this means looking for other factors that may be at play. There are often alternatives, and finding the time to look for them can often pay dividends when it comes to delivering good or bad news.

In short, an approach that is broad and flexible is required to find the best ways of delivering all types of news effectively – no matter who you are delivering it to. Ensuring you communicate using the right method, at the right time and in the right way is tricky. However, as you gain experience in project management, and more of a relationship with your team and stakeholders, you will be able to find a balance.

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