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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Managing Bad News

     I had botched it – badly. Unmistakably.
     An assignment had gone well, and it was obvious that organization could use further help.
     In an excess of enthusiasm, I immediately drew up and dispatched a proposal seeking the additional work. So far so good. Professional follow-up selling, right?
    Then came the dawn.
    This wasn’t my client.  It was my client’s client, and it was a big, important one for her. Not only had I overstepped a sacred boundary, but it was in a particularly delicate matter.
     The client’s decision-maker was a prickly and headstrong person, and my patroness had carefully cultivated the relationship. If he wasn’t offended by this aggressive sales pitch of mine, she certainly would be. My client had trusted in my professionalism, and I had blown it.

     Now that I had done the dumb thing, I swallowed hard and ‘fessed up before the guy had a chance to jump on my client, and I guess she smoothed it over with him.

     Then came the hard part. Hard for me, and now that I think it over, for her.
     “We’re going to have to talk about this, Jim,” she told me on the phone that day. It would have to be in person, face to face. I visualized what she was going to say. I’d done it myself, many times, as a manager.
     I, the erring underling in this situation, also knew there could be no quick and painless escape for me. I couldn’t just say, “Yah, yah, I know. OK, I won’t do it again.” There had to be a process.
     All of us have gone through this scenario. It can be instant, brutal . . . and public, within the working organization. You blow it, you get yelled at, you may admit your fault or maybe you yell back.
     It may go further, a lot further. A serious breach of process/protocol can really reverberate. For managers, this actually is the easy way. Bad for the organization, a relief for the manager. Someone made it worse enough that swift action will clear it away.
     How about the broader bad news situations that managers have to deal with? Some can’t be resolved – it’s more that there must be an effort to survive with the least possible damage and suffering.

     Say your job is to inform people of an upcoming staff reduction of 10 percent. One treasured friend of mine raged about the cutbacks he was mandated to make in his organization – which was profitable – because the larger ownership needed to enhance its bottom line.
     What’s the good way to deliver THAT kind of news?
     Short answer: There isn’t any.
     The only way the manager can have a decent batting average in bad-news situations is by his/her behavior predating any crisis. You maintain professionalism in your daily activities. You make it possible for good people to do good work.
     You accept the distasteful reality that every problem in your area of responsibility is YOUR problem, without regard to whatever act of failure by one of your people might be the cause.
     As you do that, through the grind of the days and the million distractions of the management job, people see you as the solid, grounded center. They know bad things will happen, but they trust you. They might yip a bit, but they will stick with you.
     After I messed up on that assignment back then, I got to experience such management. It was satisfying, and revealing. I came out feeling good about myself, my prospects and my worth. This was after fully acknowledging my mistake.

     How did she do it?
     The tone, the content and the approach were firm, but supportive. She and I together reviewed what had happened and agreed on why it never would happen again.
     The key was mutual respect, in this conversation and going all the way back.

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