Have you had to deliver bad news about a project? It may be a weekly status meeting, PMO meeting, or maybe even something bigger like an executive review. The cause of the problem is in the same room as you, and will, unfortunately, view your report of the problem or topic as an act of betrayal.
The Curse of the Manager
You really do a lot of good things in the course of your managerial duties. You bring order to chaos. You remove obstacles that are preventing work from moving forward. You bring clarity to confusion and remove ambiguity from vague situations. You go home at the end of the day and feel good about what you do.
That said, according to a recent Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of over 32,000 UK workers, 1 in 5 managers are “ineffective” and the reason most employees leave a job. I’ve seen some take a twisted delight in turning someone in who is behind on their work, but thankfully these types are few and far between, and generally don’t last very long.
It is extremely important to keep up with the latest management practices, yet one clear fact about management remains: you are required to escalate or report on people that are not performing as expected or needed to for the sake of the project. For most, this is such an uncomfortable position to be in.
Why We Fear Delivering Bad News
- We Don’t Like Turning People In: Let’s face it, it feels like you are ratting someone out. It takes you back to 3rd grade when you ran up to the teacher to tattle on the kid next to you that’s not doing what they were told to do.
- We Feel It Could Damage Our Relationship: We develop friendships and relationships at work that may even carry over to our personal lives. We may feel that reporting on work that has not been completed is to turn our back on a friend, or sacrifice work friendships for the sake of a silly little project.
- You may Feel Somewhat Responsible Yourself: A third reason people are hesitant to report someone is behind is that they may feel responsible for themselves. Here’s the scenario: you left out a key element of the plan during the project planning process. The mistake was an oversight on your part, but now the responsibility to get it done falls on someone else…for example, Connie. Not only does the surprise of it cause Connie grief, but now you are telling everyone that she is running behind and doesn’t have it done yet. Awkward.
These scenarios might not be included in your job description yet they are a reality for all managers. You can’t dictate or control whether someone is going to get their work done. They know what they need to do and it’s ultimately their responsibility to get it done.
Much has been written on the psychology of delivering negative news (and how to do it effectively). Here’s one strategy you can use in the context of managing your team and your project:
How to Throw Someone Under the Bus (Objectively)
I use this expression very loosely and primarily from the perception of the person that feels they are being thrown under the bus. Our motive and goal as a manager are not to betray someone’s trust and hold them up as the scapegoat for all something that has gone wrong. Our goal is to objectively report on the issue and look for options to make things better.
Enter the project status report.
That’s right, when used properly, a humble status report can help you report issues objectively, constructively, and remove emotion from the equation. While some Agile teams are accustomed to a level of transparency, often holding daily stand-up meetings where daily progress is discussed openly, other teams don’t already have an embedded culture of collaboration.
It can be difficult for any team to conduct status reviews as a group. Here’s how to make it work:
Include on your weekly status report a list of deliverables that are soon to be due (one-to-two weeks out), deliverables that are due (this week), and deliverables that are past due (even by just one day). This report can then serve as a dynamic window into the key deliverables of your project. Then:
- Set Ground Rules: Let everyone know that the purpose of this part of the weekly status meeting is to stay on top of what is coming up and what is getting behind. The primary owner’s name will be associated with each deliverable and move along the timeline as it progresses. Everyone, including the owner of the deliverable, will know what’s coming up next.
- Provide Ample Time to Keep Things on Track: You can go above and beyond using just the report. If you know someone who has a tendency to run behind, give them a heads up that something is coming their way and they need to plan for it. They’ll appreciate the reminders and it will help keep your projects on track.
- Be Objective: Despite the fact that everyone knows the rules and you’ve provided ample time for them to get their work done…some will still fall behind. Their name will move from coming up to due, to past due. This is where you need to be objective in how you report on this issue. There’s no need to editorialize and lace the issue with your own opinions. It’s obvious if their deliverable is in the Past Due column that they are running behind. Spend your time focusing on the solution that will help them to get caught up again.
- Treat Everyone the Same: You need to be careful to not use this mechanism as a way of ‘teaching someone a lesson.”’ You may not particularly care for someone that is running behind on a deliverable. You use this report as an opportunity to highlight their flaws and shortcomings every opportunity you get. On the other hand, you may have a buddy that promises he’ll catch up by next week’s report if you just leave him out of the Past Due column this week. What happens if next week he ends up being two weeks behind? That could easily blow up in your face. Make sure to treat everyone the same and you’ll end up with a higher level of respect.
- Be Disciplined: Putting this report together requires some legwork on your part. It could be easy to put the report together for a couple of weeks, let it slide for a couple of weeks, and then do it again. Don’t fall into this trap. The strength of this report is its consistency and regularity. It allows everyone to peer into the window of activity without huge gaps of nothing happening in between.
How Will People React?
You will come across a number of different reactions to this process. Professionals that are on the team will love the report. They’ll appreciate the visibility and reminders it provides. Others will tolerate the report…and fix their problems. And, still, others will perceive that they keep getting run over by the bus every week.
Who knows, maybe it’s time for them to find another bus stop?
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