Managing the Boss: How to Deliver Bad News

No one likes to deliver bad news to the boss.  But how you present a problem to them will have a lot to do with how they react to it.  It’s more than just “managing the boss” – it’s seeing things from their perspective. Here is a way you can break the news, help to solve the problem and strengthen your informal leadership in the process.

Problems Will Arise

It’s gonna happen: a problem crops up at the office, a delivery vehicle breaks down, a key person is late, there’s a quality issue on the production line…you name it, something is going to go wrong, and now you have to tell the boss.

There are two ways you can handle it.

One way is to take the problem to the boss, dump it on their desk like a big smelly bag of garbage, and tell them they have a problem.  Easy, right?  That’s what bosses are supposed to do.  Solve problems.

But what do you end up with?  Look at it from their perspective:  They’re annoyed because they have to stop whatever they were doing, focus on the new problem, come up with a solution, and decide who needs to do what.  They’re doing all the work and they’re not happy about it.  And they may not be happy with you.

To be a leader, think from the perspective of the leader; let that guide your actions. Click To Tweet

Managing the Boss:  A Better Way

OK, let’s try it another way:  problem pops up.  You take a moment to think about what its causes are and a few ways that it could be fixed while still accomplishing your team’s goals and vision.  Then you go into the boss.

You say, “Hey, boss, I think we have a problem, but I also may have a way to solve it.”

They look up questioningly – “Ok, go on…”

You tell them what the problem is, how you verified it really was a problem, then very briefly tell them of your idea to fix it.  It helps if you can also tell them that you ran it by the guys in Sales and IT or whatever, who said it was doable.

If they like the solution, they can do one of two things:

a) They could take it over and run the fix themselves, which is fine – you helped them by saving time and giving them an answer they can work with – good for you.

b) Or, since they’re impressed with your actions, they might put you in charge of getting it done in some way. That’s also good for you because you saved them time and effort and they are trusting you to take on a little responsibility. They are starting to see you as someone who is partnering with them to get things done.  That’s a good thing.

OK, well, what if they didn’t like the idea?  You still win, because you made the effort to help find a solution instead of just dropping the smelly garbage bag on their desk.

A Couple Cautions:

Here are a couple cautions for you though:

  1. Don’t sit on bad news while you are coming up with the perfect solution. There’s an old Army saying, ‘Bad news never gets better with age.” Plus, you don’t want them to get blindsided by someone outside the team.

Bad news never gets better with age. Click To Tweet

  1. Don’t get too far ahead of the boss. You may be trying to help, but avoid committing the team to a whole new course of action before the boss is aware and has approved.  Otherwise, you will be tying their hands, and that might end up making things worse instead of better.

The Takeaway

Managing the boss often means seeing things from their perspective.  When you tackle the problem this way, what are you doing?  You are helping.  You are part of the solution.

So the next time one pops up, confirm it’s really a problem, come up with a couple feasible ideas that might resolve it while still achieving your team’s goals, then take it to the boss.

Most will appreciate your effort and begin to see your initiative and foresight for what they are:  Leadership potential.

If you liked this brief tip, be sure to check out loads more over at where we provide the resources you need to accelerate to leadership excellence.

Thanks, and we’ll see you next time.

Note: The best leaders are those who work to develop more leaders from within their team.  L. David Marquet explains how to do this brilliantly in his book Turn The Ship Around!

If you are the leader, and a teammate comes to you with a problem, don’t solve it for them right away.  Ask them what they suggest should be done. How do they think it can be solved? If time allows, guide them in their thought process.

The more you do this, the more you will cause them to think for themselves and as leaders, and the more you will be able to tap into their brainpower and creativity to help the team.

And that can be a win for everyone.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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