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How to convey bad news at work and not be hated for it

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Nobody ever likes to give bad news. Whether you're informing a colleague about what you think about his/her latest assignment, or telling a subordinate something negative about a task that's been done, there never seems to be a right way to go about it.

More often than not, you end up being the bad guy. Nobody likes being the bad guy.

So is there a way to get your message across and still come out with as little negativity as possible? Yes. There is.

I'm not about to share something unheard of or unique in this article. I'm just elaborating a method which seemed to work wonders every time I have had to use it.

So do you like sandwiches?

A sandwich. Two slices of bread, and filling to tingle anyone's taste buds. Who doesn't like a sandwich?

No, I've not gotten lost down an irrelevant path to talk about food in an article which has nothing to do with it. It just so happens, that the name used to the technique for effectively delivering bad news is called 'The Sandwich'. The idea behind this, is to 'sandwich' your bad news in between layers of good news. This makes the news a lot easier to take.

Let's use an example to examine these three parts of the sandwich and how it applies to giving someone bad news.

John is a team leader and is in charge of making sure his teammates deliver a module on time and working as it is supposed to. Bob is a member of John's team and has recently been producing sub-standard code with far too many bugs. John is clearly unhappy.

Sandwich Layer 1 - The Ego Massage

The best way to start giving anyone bad news, is by giving them some good news. Instead of jumping straight to the point, always make a little effort to recognize some genuine effort of the person you're sharing the news with. It might seem like a lot of trouble, but it's an aeffort worth making since having bad blood between co-workers is never a good idea.

<Let's assume John and Bob have already exchanged polite pleasantries>

John: I've been meaning to talk to you about your work on this project. Everyone is telling me about how hard you work and I've been able to see how you've been putting in a lot of effort into your work. I just thought I would let you know that I appreciate your hard work.

Now it might seem cruel to some to build up a person before pushing them down again, but it makes sense because what you do by first praising them, is you settle any nerves which might be on edge. You also disarm them and make them comfortable in this situation.

Sandwich Layer 2 - The Bad news

Once you've created a platform of stability with your fellow colleague, it's time to deliver the bad news.

John: Now, about the component you checked in yesterday - Smith at testing said he noticed a lot of bugs in the code which might have been avoidable. Maybe with all the effort you've been spending, you could try and focus a little more on testing your code more thoroughly. It really pushes us behind schedule every time a piece of code returns to the developer.

Being tactful is your best bet. Blurting out an "I don't like what you did" is never a good idea. It's essential to convey your point. Notice that although John is being polite, he is still sending out a clear message that Bob really needs to start handing in cleaner code.

Sandwich Layer 3 - Seal the deal

After you're done delivering the bad news, it's time to bring morale a little higher again by emphasizing some more on the person's good qualities. Make sure this is with respect to  what you just said. What I mean is, if you just told this person to correct his actions by taking certain steps, emphasize your confidence that the person will indeed do what is necessary. This helps to ensure that the conversation still ends on a relatively amicable note.

John:I'm glad we could have this conversation, Bob. I'm sure with the sort of determination and hard work you're showing, you can easily meet all our quality requirements in your module.

And we're done!

As you can see, by "sandwiching" bad news in between good news, it makes it that much easier to take and leaves you with a higher chance of still maintaining a good relationship with the person. By the time you're done with this, the chances are that a potentially highly negative situation is now an amicable one.

In conclusion, possibly the biggest hindrance to any project is a lack of harmony between the members of the team. It might be easier to hand out 'cut and dry' admonishment, or even avoid negative situations all together, but neither is an effective method to get the job done while still preserving the spirit of the team.
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A very nice article, nikhilmenon. Thank you - I voted "Yes" above.


Author Comment

Thank you, tigermatt. Glad to hear that!


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Expert Comment

Good read.  I will give this approach a shot!
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Excellent common sense advice - thank you for writing this.
"Yes" vote above.
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by:Patrick Matthews
Excellent article that works for anyone in a management role, technical or no.

Perhaps EE should package it up with some other well-done, not-really-tech articles:



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by:Ray Paseur
Nice Article.  A slight variation on this theme is used in Toastmasters' Clubs when giving an evaluation of a speech.  The three parts are (1) Thank you for your effort, for sharing your speech, etc.; (2) You did really well on XXX (voice control, visual aids, emphatic gestures, etc); (3) Going forward here is one thing to work on: XXX (looking your audience in the eye, not picking your nose, etc).  I have personally verified that this 3-part compliment, evaluation, guidance strategy works very well on 7-year old boys.

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