Prepare long before the untoward event.  Approach it as an

exercise in problem solving.  But be ready for a blowup anyway.

     In a perfect world the manager bringing bad news to his or

her boss would be showered with appreciation.  Imagine the scene: 

Her Executive Eminence, glad to have the truth even if moved to

quiet sobs by its ill import, grasps the messenger, patting him

gently on the back out of gratitude.  Colleagues press forward to

lay a silent hand on his shoulder or to murmur "Thank you, thank

you."  A little girl emerges from the crowd, curtsies charmingly,

and presents him a bouquet.

     We live in a very imperfect world.  The boss flies into a

rage, the messenger is killed, and his gleeful co-workers bayonet

the corpse as the stretcher-bearers come to carry off the body. 

In the corporate sphere these things actually happen, though

perhaps less often than terrified messengers fear.  Robert

Pearson, president of the Lamaile Associates executive search

firm, cites the example of a computer company president who had

to tell his chairman--a substantial shareholder--and the

assembled directors that results wouldn't be up to plan.  The

exec went about it the right way, providing a full explanation

and detailed plans for getting back on track.  The chairman fired

him on the spot anyway.

     In the quick-shifting business universe of the 1990s, what

that chairman did isn't homicide.  It's suicide.  The experts--

business school professors, consultants--pretty much agree on

what happens when organizations routinely stifle what the jargonauts

call negative upward communication:  Hidden from the

sunlight of managerial attention, problems fester and eventually

ulcerate into big, ugly, expensive crises.  Maybe in the good old

stable days, when there wasn't as much competition out there in

the marketplace, companies could afford this brand of obtuseness. 

Not anymore.  If the organization is to adapt to changing

circumstances, and to learn, word--even a discouraging word--has

to pass on up the line.

     Your boss may not appreciate the fact that she truly needs

to hear the bad news.  It falls you on then, Mr. or Ms.

Responsible Manager, to figure out how to get the message through

to executive Olympus.

     A decent regard for self-preservation dictates that you

begin by understanding the career danger you run when you bear

ill tidings.  It isn't so much that on this one occasion Zeus may

strike you down with a lightening bolt.  It is, rather, that

hereafter, if there are other episodes, the bossly gods may begin

to view you in a different light.  As someone who overreacts,

perhaps, for a negative sort or, worse yet, a troublemaker.  

Jane Halpert, a psychology professor at DePaul University, notes the

obvious consequence: "If every time you see a person he's

bringing you bad news, you tend to avoid him.  It's natural."

     The antidote:  Work on your relationship with The Big Guy or

Gal long before the dismal necessity ever arises.  "Delivering

bad news isn't just communicating the information," observes

Kellogg School professor Robert Bies, perhaps the foremost

academic authority on the subject.  "It's a multiple-act

process."  In a sense, it begins the very first time the two of

you sit down to talk.

     Besides agreeing on stuff like shared goals, you should try

to work out as concretely as possible how you will stay in touch. 

Bilateral open doors?  Regular meetings?  Memos?  Never before

the day's second cup of coffee?  Once you have the pipeline laid

down, endeavor to keep it full.  Routinely pass along the good

and the middling news, the interesting tidbit, the fun gossip. 

If you catch her in all her bossly puissance doing something

meritorious, compliment her all the same.  You might even attempt

to rehearse a few what-if scenarios, as in  "What if this or that

disaster struck, what would we do then?"

     In the course of all this back-and-forth, you can study your

boss to see how she reacts to less than encouraging dispatches

from the front.  Elaine Berke, a Westport, Massachusetts,

consultant, elaborates on some of the possibilities:  "If your

boss is very task oriented, very direct and take-charge, she

would probably want to hear it right away, succinctly.  If she's

more analytical, then you may want to give some background

information first, especially the important facts that led up to

the bad news.  If the boss is a more amiable kind of person, who

looks on this as high-risk stuff, you'll want to come at it in a

more amiable way--preparing her for it, being reassuring, maybe

even apologetic.

     Okay, you know her style.  Then, one day, on darkling wings,

comes trouble:  You're not going to hit your weekly numbers, or

the stalwart you brought aboard last month as head financial

type; well, he's been out of the office for a few days, but he

did just send a funny postcard ... from Brazil.  (The experts

rank budgetary shortfalls and personnel problems as perhaps the

most common varieties of organizational bad tidings.)

     Gather all the facts, questioning people close to the

unhappy developments in your best nonprosecutorial manner and

take notes on what they say.  As you do, think about where the

news fits in a who's-responsible taxonomy proposed by Hendire 

Weisinger, author of The Critical Edge, a book on delivering

criticism in organizations:  If the problem is your fault, you're

going to want to be up front about that melancholy fact.  If it's

her fault, tread carefully indeed:  "Depersonalize the news,"

says Weisinger, along the lines of "Let me describe the current

situation.  The plan was as follows ... Certain events have

intervened."  If neither you nor she is responsible, concentrate

on what to recommend by way of cutting your losses.

     Particularly if the boss is the problem--everybody else

agrees that her latest cockamamie scheme will prove disastrous--

take time to do what professor Bies calls coalition-building: 

Solicit the opinions of your colleagues and knit together a

consensus on how to approach "the current situation."  When the

time comes, you will feel a lot more comfortable if you can say,

"Manufacturing doesn't think it will work.  Neither does

Marketing or Finance.  I share their view."

     Must you confront Herself face to face?  Could you not, this

one miserable cowardly time; maybe send a memo instead?  If the

mess requires loads of numbers to explain, you almost certainly

will want to have something in writing.  Marty Nord, a professor

of communications at Vanderbilt's Owen School of Management,

observes that there's even a textbook formula for bad news memos: 

Begin with a neutral statement to buffer the blow ("We have word

from one of our tankers off Alaska ..."); set out the facts;

offer your opinion; then look forward ("Given normal tidal

action, we can expect that within ten to 20 years ...").

     The form has its limitations.  Too often, Nord says, the

neutral lead-in goes on so long and cheerily that the boss skips

the rest and misses the bullet entirely.  "As a general

guideline, oral is better," she advises.  "If you deliver the

message in person, you can straighten out misperceptions and

reinforce the move on to the next step."

     The last consideration before you march into the boss's

office, and the one most frequently raised by real live managers;

the delicate question of timing.  Just after she has received an

upbeat report?  Maybe just before she gets still worse tidings? 

Forget such subtleties.  The only important rule on timing is the

sooner the better.  "We have a saying around Bank of America,"

says Ron Bhody, its director of corporate communications: "Kill

the messenger only if he's late with the news."

     In you go on the double.  Put the bad news up front, most of

the experts advise.  The last thing you want is for the boss to

feel she has been set up.  Lay out the facts, lay out the

alternative courses of action, and tell which one you recommend

and why.  Avoid being preemptive, as in "Here's the solution and

the steps I'm taking to implement it."  The best managers, Bies finds,

view delivering bad news as an exercise in problem

solving, and they endeavor to draw the boss into the process. 

You want her to say, "Have you thought about this or that


     Don't be defensive; don't be arrogant.  If it's your fault,

never blame others.  But if you really are just the messenger,

take a tip form Kevin Daley, head of the Communispond consulting

firm:  Give the boss plenty of verbatim quotes from your sources,

clearly indicated as such.  It will clue her to the quality of

your information, and not incidentally point up that you are

merely serving as a conduit.

     Even if you've observed the punctilio, be prepared for

uncivil behavior.  Caught on an off day, she rants and raves. 

Don't try to talk her out of it:  "Gee, boss, you always said you

wanted me to come to you with this kind of stuff.  This isn't in

our psychological contract."  No, let her vent her feelings. 

Take it like the occasionally thick-skinned manager you're paid

to be.