What to do when telling bosses something they might not like

Today’s email is on a topic people often ask me about. And it’s bad news. Literally. What if we must convey to bosses something they might not like?

First though, step back... as I’ve explained in previous emails, our reports should start with the conclusion. Opening sentence – spell it out. “We should close the store.” “Because of new EU rules, we need two more people in IT.” There are numerous benefits to this. It gives context to help bosses better judge comments that follow. It spares bosses an Agatha Christie novel that reveals the answer on the back page. (And I bet many readers give up reading it all and flick to the back to find it.)

It also avoids a strain on the brain. Imagine reading a report whose conclusion is at the back. As we read through the report, we try to store its facts in our head in the hope that - when we reach the conclusion - we can recall all the facts to ensure they're consistent with the conclusion that we've at last stumbled across. Not easy. A strain on short-term memory.

And there's one last benefit to starting with the conclusion: it saves time. If bosses like our conclusion, they might just skip the rest of the report. Job done.

But what if bosses don’t like our conclusion. Our 5-page report concludes that: “We should enter the Fiji market” – but we know that four years ago, bosses firmly rejected this idea. We fear that, if our report starts with this, bosses won’t read beyond the first sentence. They’ll instantly reject it. So – we surmise - it’s better to hide our ‘Fiji’ idea until page 5, by which time we’ll have won bosses over with our logic and analysis.

Dream on. If they don’t see the report’s conclusion on page 1, they’ll turn to page 5 to read it anyway. So start with it. (Of course, maybe we could lobby bosses before circulating the report – but let’s assume we can’t.)

Oh yes, I'm the great persuader: let's move away from reports... imagine we’re now merely chatting to bosses and wish to run this ‘Fiji’ idea past them. They can’t flick to the back page of our report, for there is no report. So – people surmise – it’s wise not to start with the conclusion, for bosses would instantly torpedo it. Surely we delay blurting out “Fiji” and instead strive to be the Great Persuader. That is, we talk about issues in our current markets (“conclusion: we must enter new markets”). We then list criteria we seek for a ‘good’ new market… but lo, it transpires we’re in most already. But wait… there’s one last great untapped market (cue dramatic pause): “FIJI!”. At last, we reveal our idea.

Before explaining why you shouldn’t do this, let’s widen the topic, for bosses rail not just against proposals (“Fiji!”), but also against bad news (“We’ve lost a big client”). So from hereon, let’s call them both 'Bad News' (even though the ‘Fiji’ idea isn’t Bad News, it’s a Bad Proposal…).

Regardless of the type of Bad News, if we delay blurting it out at the start, it’s not good for several reasons:

It’s a trick we get away with only once. When we try the trick again, alarm bells ring in bosses’ heads: “I’ve seen this before - Jon’s talking to me about something, but I don’t know why … I bet he’s leading up to Bad News”. They’ll stop us in our tracks and demand we ‘fess up.

It risks making bosses hate us even more. If they hate our Bad News, better they hate it after 15 seconds, than after two minutes of our scene-setting and expectation-managing. We waste less of bosses’ time.

It’s not what we want others to do to us. We want others to tell us Bad News up front. I say to people: “If one of your staff has Bad News to tell you, which do you prefer? That they come straight out with it, or that they scene-set for two minutes first?”. Everyone says: “Straight out”. And it’s no different if we receive bad news not from staff but from bosses. It’s time for the bonus chat, and unbeknownst to us, our bonus has been cut. Which do we prefer from our boss? Two minutes of scene-setting, prior to the bonus reveal? Or the boss telling us the reduced bonus figure at the start? Again, everyone says: at the start.

So, instead get the Bad News out in the open. Acknowledge to bosses that it isn’t what they want to hear – then move quickly to our well-prepared thoughts (“OK, four years ago, you hated the Fiji market, but a lot has changed since then… I wouldn’t suggest Fiji now if I didn’t think there are good reasons for us to have a second look – will you give me two minutes to tell you the reasons?”. At which point, we’ve a decision tree:

1. We don’t get two minutes: at least we waste only 15 seconds of bosses’ time.

2. We do get two minutes: and if our reasons are valid and bosses trust us - we’ve a chance.

3. We do get two minutes - but our reasons aren’t valid: well, we’re stuffed anyway.

Which leads nicely onto another concern people have with blurting out Bad News at the start: “It takes confidence… I really must know my topic to do this – I need my arguments lined up”.

Yes it does and yes you do. No way round that one, I’m afraid. Anyway, it’s flawed thinking to say to yourself: “Hmmm... the logic I have to support my idea... it's a bit ropey - maybe I should put the conclusion at the end”. So make sure you know your topic, otherwise it’s the worst of all outcomes: we waste bosses’ time with a half-baked idea.

Let's recap. Start with the conclusion, even if it’s not what readers or listeners wish to hear. But do make sure you’ve a good follow-up to your opening statement… and for ideas on what you might say – for thoughts on how to persuade – here’s previous emails: Persuading; More on persuading; Pushing on closed doors.

That’s it for this month. No fun stuff, I’m afraid. I’ll include something next month.

Til then


Clarity and Impact Ltd | +44 20 8840 4507 | jon@jmoon.co.uk | www.jmoon.co.uk

To receive these emails at a different address, email me with details.

Want my GDPR policy? Click here. It's a bit irreverent, plus has two jokes.

Want to see previous emails? Click here for loads.

Been forwarded this email? Want to get future updates directly? Click here

Clarity and Impact Ltd