How to Manage Bad News

It’s better to get the word out and take action when there is bad news to share then to have it surface in other ways.

ARTICLE | Mar 21, 2017

By Karin Hurt and David Dye

You screwed up. Or, perhaps you trusted your team and now you have empowerment run amok. You don't want to blame team members, but you're mad, too. As a local government manager, your bosses—the elected officials—will be ticked.

It's time to come clean. So, how do you explain bad news?

Delivering Bad News

The good news: Handle the situation well, and you'll increase your leadership credibility. The bad news: You've still got bad news.

From job and leadership experience we’ve had during our careers, when something happened we insisted on the “no blind side” rule. That is, if there’s bad news, hearing it from the team was preferred, not from a supervisor, not from a customer, and certainly not on social media.

These four steps are key to dealing with bad news:

D – Disclosure. Explain the situation and root cause. Give enough detail to show you’re on top of it, but not so much that you’re rambling, which is easy to do when you’re stressed.
          Example: "I've had a bad day. We have a bit of a situation I need to fill you in. This _______ happened, and now we have _______. When I dug in deeper, I learned it was caused by __________.” It is important to name the cause of the behavior or situation, not the person.

A – Accountability. Don't be a blamer. This is tricky, particularly when it’s not your fault; however, managers don’t blame their team or individual team members.
          Example: "I accept full responsibility. I should have been closer to this. Here's how I can prevent it, if it happens a next time_______."

R – Response. Share your solution. Sometimes you may be able to come with a full solution, other times you may need help. Take a beat to think through the best initial response and execute that quickly. Then, if you have other recovery ideas, be prepared with those as well.
          Example: "Here's what I've already done _______.” In one type of work case, it might include alerting the public relations department in case a customer turns to social media to report concern or unhappiness.

A team leader will be impressed that an employee has already taken some action. It’s worth thinking through the next best few steps and proactively getting the ball rolling.

N - Next Steps. Share your plan and what you need. Most problems aren’t resolved in one easy solution, so don’t feel like you’ve got to have it all figured out before you approach your supervisor or team leader. Be prepared to discuss next steps.
          Example: "Here's what I'm going to do next______, and I could use your help with _______.” Do seek help if needed.

No one likes to hear bad news. But it’s far better to get the word out quickly and take action, then to have it surface in other, more unproductive ways.

Karin Hurt, chief executive officer, Let’s Grow Leaders, Baltimore, Maryland (, and David Dye, president, Trailblaze, Inc., Denver, Colorado (, are the authors of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul (


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