Delivery Is Key
Last month, my sister landed a fantastic new job, but she dreaded telling her boss, who she loved, that she was leaving. We strategized about how to break the news, and she rocked it — so much so that her manager promised to look out for a promotion for her in the hopes of hiring her back in the near future.
At around the same time, a friend of mine who works in the ski industry decided to quit on Christmas (the busiest day of the year) … in an email. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well — and it made me realize just how essential delivery is when it comes to telling your boss something she’s going to be less than thrilled about. “No one likes to hear bad news, but how you package the information can dramatically impact how it’s perceived,” says Lynn Taylor, workplace expert and author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job.” “If you present things right, you can turn a lemon into lemonade.” Whether you didn’t meet your sales goals or need to take time off, try these strategies to drop a bombshell without it blowing up in your face.
Pick Your Moment
Exactly when you tell your boss can play a big role in determining how she takes your bad news. You should talk to her as soon as possible so she can address the problem head on and it doesn’t look like you were sitting on important intel. But also be sensitive to her mood. “If your company’s stock plummeted 10 percent, it’s not the ideal day to give your notice,” says Taylor. “Timing is everything.” Clearly.
The ideal moment to schedule the appointment depends on your boss’s patterns, says Peggy Klaus, executive coach and author of “BRAG! The Art Of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It” and “The Hard Truth About Soft Skills.” If you notice that she tends to come into work energized on Mondays, do it then. If you know she leaves at 5pm on the dot to pick her kid up from soccer practice, avoid late afternoons.
As a general rule of thumb: Friday right after lunch is a good bet; Mondays and early mornings (when bosses tend to have more than usual on their plates), the end of the day and before lunch tend to be touchy times.
Act Like It’s No Big Deal
When initially scheduling The Talk, it’s best not to let on that anything is wrong. “Telling her you have something serious to discuss will only make her needlessly concerned,” says Klaus. So say you’d like to meet for 30 minutes (or however long you need) about a project as soon as possible. Klaus also recommends chatting in her office. It’s private, and because you’re on her turf, she’ll feel more at ease.
Face the Music
As tempting as it might be to spill the beans via email and avoid an awkward confrontation, it’s key to do it in person. “Not only does it show respect and courage, but being able to observe her reaction in the moment gives you crucial information about how to respond,” explains Klaus. “It also allows for dialogue. You won’t get nearly the same breadth or depth of conversation in an email.”
Let’s say you told her you have to leave early for physical therapy every Friday for the next four months. Her tone and facial expressions can clue you in to what exactly she’s concerned about. Is it that she won’t have that time covered? Assure her you’ll still be checking email. Is she worried about the business trip you were supposed to take in a month? Explain that you got a co-worker to fill in.
Hone Your Tone
The old adage “It’s not what you say, but how you say it” is true. “That doesn’t mean the content isn’t important. Difficult news is always hard to hear, but you can make it significantly easier for the person to digest, says Klaus.” If you’re relaxed and upbeat (“Sales have dipped, but I have a few ideas for how we can get the numbers back up”), your unfazed attitude will rub off on your boss.
Preparing for the conversation will also help you project calm confidence. “When you’re nervous, you tend to take shorter breaths, limiting oxygen to the brain. As a result you get tongue-tied and things don’t come out the way you want them to,” explains Klaus. “You also might assume passive body language — averted eyes, soft voice, slumped shoulders — which sends the message that you’re not capable of handling the problem.” So before knocking on her door, jot down a few bullet points about what you want to say (you might even want to practice out loud). And adopt an assertive presence: Stand tall with your shoulders back, speak clearly and with energy and make direct eye contact. “This shows her that you have the issue under control,” says Klaus.
Do Damage Control
The single most important way to make bad news better? Brainstorm solutions to remedy the issue ahead of time. Think about it: Your boss is dealing with crises all day long; you don’t want her to peg you as someone who’s stacking yet another dilemma onto her plate. “Talk about the problem honestly yet briefly,” says Preston Ni, professor of Communication Studies at Foothill College in Silicon Valley, and author of “How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People and Communication Success With Four Personality Types.” “Then immediately follow up by saying, ‘I’ve thought of a number of ways to troubleshoot. Let me run some ideas by you.’” Phrase it like that, and she’ll view you as a positive force rather than the bearer of disappointment.
Hint: Try Ni’s “Rule of Three.” A theory he’s developing, based on his experiences working with business managers and executives, suggests that people in positions of power are more likely to make a decision when they’re given three options. It gives them a sense of being in control (unlike offering just one or two choices), while more than three creates cognitive dissonance. “If you show initiative, you can turn this stumbling block into a stepping stone,” promises Ni. “Employees who are seen as problem solvers are more likely to be promoted and given a raise.”
Curate Your Approach
So you’ve booked the meeting, practiced your delivery, brainstormed smart fixes and taken a deep breath. Now you just need to come out and say it. Because your boss’s personality plays into the approach she’ll be most receptive to, consider her M.O. Is she people-oriented or creative? “With right-brain managers, it’s best to soften them up with small talk before getting to the main point,” says Ni. Couch the bad news within the context of discussing other projects, and make sure that you include some positive nuggets (sales are up, you received positive feedback from a client, etc.).
On the other hand, if you’d categorize your boss as an analytical or domineering type, you’re better off cutting to the chase. “These task-oriented personalities don’t want to waste time,” Ni points out.
End on a Good Note
To finish up the conversation, ask your boss if she has any specific concerns or feedback, suggests Klaus. Then say something like, “I’m planning to write up all my ideas and send you a memo. Let’s have another conversation once we see it on paper. How does that sound?” Verbalizing the course of action will ensure that you’re both on the same page and matters are under control.
Stay in Touch
Assuming (fingers crossed!) the outcome of your conversation was positive, follow up with your manager post-talk. “The day after, tell her that you appreciated the meeting,” says Ni. Try, “Our discussion the other day was very helpful. I look forward to taking care of the task at hand and will keep you up to date.” Then, a couple of weeks later, send her “a more substantive follow-up outlining the progress you’ve made and next steps,” adds Ni.