IT isn’t flawless — often there are disappointments. How staff handle and deliver bad news involves remaining calm and focusing on the facts

After working through some challenging management problems, a staffer came to me and reported a setback to which I uttered “Rats, Bats and Alley Cats”.

The stupefied employee retorted – “Say what?”  I explained the phrase simply as one I grew up expressing sincere unexpected disappoint. Where it came from I really can’t say and is likely a juvenile rhyming extension to just saying “Rats!”  To that I received the Mr. Spock raised eyebrow of puzzlement.

As IT professionals, sometimes we respond inappropriately to disappointment. I find this surprising given how often IT work involves setbacks. But little in IT training prepares us to deliver, or receive, a disappointment.  Bad news is, well, bad news.

However, how we communicate the news makes a world of difference.  Being professional means delivering accurate information which is fundamental to integrity and trust.  From my favourite Dragnet character, Sgt. Joe Friday, spawned the catch phrase “Just the facts, ma’am’ (though he never actually uttered the phrase in any shows). I’ve never regretted sticking to the facts.

Avoid temptations to colour the news. The spin technique, making bad news look like good news, has no place in professional workplace.  As the real facts bubble to the surface loss of credibility and erosion of trust are the ultimate results. Starting bad news delivery with “I’m pleased to report …” is disingenuous and the first step in spinning the news.  Beyond facts, the atmosphere of the presentation should match the news.  While a graveyard motif is not necessary, bells and ribbons and being overtly upbeat smacks of a snake oil salesperson.

Another form of spin involves minimizing the negative and comparing to even worse news. Often this type of presentation is used to try and conceal or divert fault. Comparing to others’ failures can appear childish and unprofessional. Minimizing the bad news may matters worse when considering corrective actions or decisions for dependent work.  IT professionals focus on the work first and foremost.

Consider presenting facts in a balanced manner.  Rarely is there only bad or disappointing news.  It is important not to ignore important outcomes, good and bad. If you can decide on what to present first prepare to deliver both: “I have good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”
Here’s a short list to consider:

  • Practice your delivery
  • Reduce your emotion
  • Stop talking – allow time for reaction
  • Try not to surprise
  • Take ownership if needed
  • Include the important positives

The other side of the coin gets even less attention by IT professionals – receiving bad or disappointing news. How you handle the news is equally important as an pro and for your own personal well-being. Managing our emotions and thinking critically, especially at stressful time, are key to a professional response.
Similar to the tendencies to spin and deflect the news, an angry or fearful response will colour our responses. Focus on the facts and seek clarity. Consider responding only when you feel you can contribute constructively.
On the receiving side, be prepared to:

  • Remain calm
  • Focus on the facts
  • Acknowledge both the bad and the good aspects
  • Avoid snap decisions

From missing deadlines to losing key resources, IT professionals need to hone their skills to deal with constant change in projects and enterprises. Improving how we deal with the Rats, Bats and Alley Cats will provide better results for the enterprise and a lower personal stress level.

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