Serving a Bad News Sandwich

Employees talk about shooting the messenger for a reason – because it happens with regularity in stressful business situations.  The reaction – which ranges from stoic acceptance to apoplectic – may be understandable, but it is typically counterproductive.  Negative reactions tend to stifle communication on tough subjects, reducing time and options for solving problems.

At some point, you will likely be called upon to deliver bad news.  If you’re a manager, I can guarantee you’ll have to deal with hearing it.  The question is:  How should both sides handle this stressful situation in a way that encourages the free flow of information and an early opportunity to solve issues?  And how can it be handled without the subordinate becoming injured in the process?

Exception Management

The numbers say it all.  Nearly every manager has multiple subordinates.  If the manager is above first line supervision, the subordinates go multiple layers deep.  Managers can’t know what is happening with all of their subordinates all of the time, at least not unless the subordinate’s jobs are quite repetitive and easily characterized by performance measures.  There simply isn’t enough time.

Managers normally cope with this situation through “exception management.”  They focus their time and attention on those items that are out of the ordinary.

Here’s a badly kept secret – a high percentage of these “exceptions” are problems.

Personnel conflicts, a project that is off track, results that miss (or will miss) expectations – these things are the daily trade of management.  Ever wonder why your manager seems grouchy?  Or depressed?  A large part of the typical manager’s day is spent dealing with challenges, many of them tough or messy.

A Predictable Reaction

Most managers can’t help but respond negatively to the constant stream of incoming problems, at least some of the time – it could be a grimace, or an eye-roll.  Or maybe a temper tantrum.

Employees, being highly observant of the boss’s behavior, notice all of this.  Most begin to recognize that their “bad news” is unwelcome.

As a result, they grow reluctant to provide it.

Some problems eventually resolve on their own, encouraging the delay of a discussion on the subject.  Many, however, fester and become progressively worse.  This increases the expected (and probable) negative boss reaction.  This produces a self-reinforcing avoidance reaction, where it becomes increasingly risky for the employee to reveal the problem.

Some employees will go out of their way to hide issues.  By the time these usually come to the surface, they are often unavoidable disasters.  As a manager, this reflects poorly on you, and is a behavior you must discourage.  But if you aren’t careful how you do this, you’ll drive issues even further underground.

Each manager is simultaneously a boss and a subordinate.  While the boss-part may want her subordinates to let her know about problems right away, she still might hide information from her superior.  Is this hypocrisy?  Do what I say, not what I do?

Maybe.  It is more likely, however, a rational reaction to expectations of a harsh response from above.

This is particularly true if her boss is likely to erupt over it.  Or to somehow punish her.

Up the Ladder

When I was a General Manager, I used to say “…by the time a problem reaches me, it is typically a large, stinking pile of poo that can’t easily be cleaned up.”  Almost without exception, if I’d learned of the problem sooner my options for solving it would have been broader and the task would have been simpler.

In one example, a new facility under construction developed major problems with throughput on a critical piece of equipment – one that would prevent the plant from achieving its rated productivity by a wide margin.  The manager in charge of the project kept assuring everyone that the issues were minor and would soon be resolved.  By the time the truth came to light, many of the alternate approaches were no longer viable.

Unintended Consequences

Even if a manager is non-punitive, and tries her best to mute her reaction to bad news, the reluctance to reveal problems will still be present.  Past experience – even if it comes from a different boss – is a powerful teacher, and a single negative incident probably takes at least a dozen positive ones to offset it.

So what’s a manager to do?

Embrace problems as learning opportunities, and welcome them?

Most of us can’t manage to do this, but at the least you must control your reactions.  Don’t get angry.  Don’t visibly disapprove.  And above all else, don’t try to attach a name to every problem or failure.  Get to the bottom of what caused the problem, but go extra-lite on the “who” question.

I often told people I wanted to discover the defects that allowed problem to occur, and to correct these things.  I was much less interested in knowing “who shot John.”

This won’t eliminate the general reluctance people have to bringing problems forward until they are nearly unsolvable.  But it will help.

It’s the Packaging

As an employee, it is best to bring problems forward as soon as you recognize they may have significant consequences.  Give your manager as much time as possible to help you deal with the issue.  If the situation successfully resolves, you’ll actually get more credit if the boss knows the problem actually existed in the first place – even if it was caused by an error on your part.

A former peer used to say he “…tried to get the boss in the boat with him, rather than letting him stand on the shore to throw rocks (at him, I assumed!)”  The only way to do this is to get the manager involved early, when there are still possible alternatives to fix or mitigate the situation.

When revealing problems, I used a technique I called the “bad news sandwich.”  This consists of talking about a success or accomplishment, then discussing the problem, and ending with another positive.  I visualized it as two slices of light, fluffy bread with a piece of rotten meat in the middle.  The bigger and more unappetizing the meat, the more bread is needed to choke it down.

Applied properly, the technique puts the problem in perspective.  It reminds the boss that not everything in your area of responsibility is “falling apart,” a point that is particularly important when the “meat” is grotesque, or when you have several “slices” to deliver.


Managing bad news is one of the most difficult things for both employees and managers to do well.

As an employee, your best chance of successfully handling bad news is to get it on the table early.  To make it more palatable, careful packaging when it is revealed may be necessary.

As a manager, your strategy should be to focus on the “how” not the “who” while also making sure you’re reactions are appropriate for the situation and reasonably controlled.  27.2

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To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, complete with a story about how a "deal" they are negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, everything is not exactly as it seems....

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experiences as a senior manager in public corporations.