The Bearer of Bad News in Project and Program Management and Beyond

According to the PMI 2020 Pulse of the Profession, the focus in the field of project and program management is leaders — leaders who can pivot quickly when their plan isn’t working, who understand how to apply emerging technologies, and who have exceptional interpersonal skills to communicate and motivate their teams effectively.

All three of these characteristics rely on well-developed soft skills, which are also emphasized in the Program and Project Management Competencies of the Program Management Improvement Accountability Act (PMIAA) and the goals of the President’s Management Agenda (PMA).

Many responsibilities utilize a project leader’s soft skills, including being the bearer of bad news when things are not going well. Let’s look at some of the ways we can make this unpleasant situation more palatable.

Better Early than Late

Have you noticed how often agility comes up? There is a distinct advantage to learning about problems as early as possible so that a solution or an alternative route can be implemented. Identifying a significant problem early-on saves time and cost, especially considering the potential of an adverse outcome with a multi-million-dollar project.

Delivery is Important

It is best to deliver impactful news in-person whenever possible. Explaining the situation face-to-face allows the real-time exchange of information and shows respect. It will also help the recipient process the information. When bad news is communicated through a report, memo, email, or text message without warning, the recipient is likely to make assumptions that may or may not be accurate.

Consider Your Audience

Should you start by proposing a solution, or get straight to the point? Think about the personality of the person you need to speak to and what you need to convey. Consider where, when, and how your conversation should occur to produce the best outcome.

Be Prepared

There’s a big difference between “I have a flat tire, and I won’t be able to make it to the meeting this morning” and “The contractor has encountered an obstacle that could potentially delay project completion by six months.” Both messages qualify as bad news, but they are not on the same scale, and neither will be the required response. It is a good idea to write down some solutions ahead of time to help ease the blow and focus on a positive solution.

Listen and Respond

After the news has been delivered, be ready to respond to any questions or concerns. You will likely be asked to provide additional details and find related information. Remember that your primary objective is to make this person aware of the problem so that they can address it appropriately. And, while some action may be taken immediately, it is best to continue offering your assistance until the issue has been completely resolved.

Relevant in All Areas

Federal and commercial employees in project managementfinanceprocurement, and many other settings can undoubtedly benefit from having some guidelines to help make the task of delivering bad news a little bit easier. And the relevance doesn’t stop there. These tips will be useful in circumstances with your family, friends, and community. And, for guidance on delivering bad news related to personnel, refer to Employee Relations at the Office of Management and Budget.

Written by:
Natalie Komitsky
Financial Management
Media Type:

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