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The Three Act Play of Delivering Bad News

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Whether it’s negative performance feedback or massive employee layoffs, bad news in an organization is almost a daily phenomenon. Despite its frequent occurrence in organizational processes, the delivery of bad news remains one of the most difficult tasks facing leaders. The challenge for most leaders with delivering bad news is often caused by an emotional reaction or undeveloped skill set. While existing literature discusses the impact of bad news on an organization, until now there has been little research on how managers can most effectively deliver bad news.

In the study, "The Delivery of Bad News in Organizations: A Framework for Analysis," Professor Robert J. Bies provides practical guidance for managers and other professionals in the delivery of bad news. The paper presents a ‘play’ that conceptualizes the delivery of bad news as a process involving a variety of activities in three different, but interrelated, ‘acts’ — preparation, delivery, and transition.

By watching and practicing the following performance, leaders, HR professionals, doctors, and politicians can build trust, loyalty, and commitment with constituents:

Act IPreparation
Most executives stumble in the first act — preparation. During this phase, managers must provide advance warning that the delivery of bad news is coming and manage expectations. Prior to the delivery, leaders should ensure a coalition with stakeholders and document any communication and actions taken before the actual delivery. Since the delivery of bad news can be a challenging task, managers should rehearse prior to the actual delivery.

“The 1st Commandment for delivering bad news is: Thou shalt not surprise,” said Bies.

Act IIDelivery
The three most important components in the second act are appropriate timing, the delivery channel, and the explanation. From the time of day to external events, leaders should consider timing factors that may influence how bad news is received. Depending on the severity of the bad news, leaders should determine the appropriate delivery medium — the more serious the bad news, the more face-to-face time needed. Without offering more than two reasons, managers must explain why the bad news occurred and conclude with a positive or hopeful statement.

“Bad news delayed is bad news compounded,” said Bies.

Act IIITransition
Following the delivery of bad news, leaders must address performance and perception issues. When addressing performance issues, the study identifies the strategic functions of bad news management activities, including performance correction, and building commitment and support. When addressing perception issues, blame management, lessening the perceived severity of the outcome, and self-management are critical functions. Since change is often associated with negative results, leaders should consider activities such as public relations and caretaking and parting ceremonies.

“When delivering bad news, remember you’re communicating to a human being. It is in the bad times that a leader’s ability and character is most tested,” said Bies.