You’re at the end of a meeting with a senior manager at your company, updating her on the status of an important project. She looks concerned but not displeased. She says, “Thank you for letting me know, and please keep me updated.” When you walk out of the room or hit “End meeting for all,” you sigh and say to yourself, “That didn’t go as badly as it could have.”
Congratulations! You’ve just delivered bad news on a project to the boss, and while it was painful, it wasn’t a disaster. In fact, you may have advanced your career and made a good impression.
Let’s rewind a day, or perhaps a week. You are in the middle of a high-profile project within your company. You’re looking at some new data, and they don’t look good. Perhaps it’s an impurity that cannot be removed or an unusually low yield. This is bad news—and perhaps even a project killer. Now what do you do?
Unlike fine wine or some crystals, bad news doesn’t get better with age, and you should report it as soon as possible. Depending on the importance of the project and your leadership’s style, you may have an hour or two, a few days, or a week. Regardless, there are steps you should at least try to take before picking up the phone or sending an email.
First, confirm that the information is correct. There’s no need to start palms sweating and hearts racing unnecessarily—bad news is bad, but inaccurate news is unhelpful. Perhaps ask a trusted coworker to check your calculations, or even have the colleague analyze the data independently. When you do report a problem, your coworkers or managers are likely to ask, “Are you sure?” and then a variety of technical questions about your findings. You may as well have that data confirmed and at your fingertips.
The next main question that you will field is, “Why?” There may be many correct responses to this question, but there is definitely one incorrect answer: “I don’t know, and I haven’t done anything to find out.” Try to pinpoint the most likely source of the problem. Was it faulty equipment? A procedural shortcut? If you’re facing a true mystery, like a missing 40% of chemical yield, take a deep breath and remember that the laws of nature and the fundamentals of chemistry have not been repealed. Assuming the missing material did not evaporate or sublimate, there must be some deeper, underlying cause, and you should try to figure it out.
Once you know what happened and, hopefully, why, you need to prepare to discuss the potential impact and next steps. This is a great opportunity to think about the priorities of the project: sometimes the deadline is what matters most, and management will be willing to add people to the team and loosen the purse strings to purchase more materials or equipment in order to make it. Being able to say, “We think that with 2 more weeks and some help, we can recover from this” can be a great way to mitigate bad news. Or you may want to assemble a list of options with a recommendation.
Before you deliver the bad news to your bosses, meet with your team and discuss your approach: Who will present the news, who will answer technical questions, and who will take the more business-oriented questions? It’s OK to be nervous, but take a moment to regain calm and remind yourself that you have put together a good plan. And don’t rush to answer your bosses’ questions. Pay attention, listen carefully, and respond thoughtfully.
Depending on the situation, you may be asked who was responsible for any errors. I think the best way to handle that question is to answer straightforwardly. If it is your mistake, it is important to acknowledge that directly and follow up with what you have learned. This kind of honesty is painful to the ego—trust me, I know—but good bosses know that people make mistakes, and good scientists learn the right lessons from them. Being known for taking responsibility can help rather than hurt your career.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.