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Breaking Bad News to Your Boss

Sometimes at work – and actually, more times than you'd ever want – something goes wrong or gets screwed up. A project goes awry; an ...

Sometimes at work – and actually, more times than you'd ever want – something goes wrong or gets screwed up. A project goes awry; an important client decides to go elsewhere; a new product just doesn't catch fire the way everyone expected. Business is filled with crises and failures, large and small, and when they happen to be yours, despite the natural instinct to keep the problem quiet, you have to tell your boss.

That's never fun, but it's life. And life will go on for you, career-wise, as long as you remember one key thing:  

Never, under any circumstances, dump your "hot mess" in your boss's office, saying, "We have a problem," in a way that implies you're also thinking, "and I sure hope you can clean it up."
No, when you walk into your boss's office with a troubling situation, always walk in with its solution too, or, at a minimum, a route to its solution. And do that sooner rather than later; denial and delay only make matters worse.

The truth is, bosses have to hear bad news. It's their responsibility. It's their job. And they know that. But your star will certainly rise if you embrace that it's your responsibility and job to take the lead in fixing the bad news you've delivered.

This topic is top of mind for us at the moment because one of our students at the Jack Welch Management Institute raised it during a recent video conference, as he was facing something of a "hot mess" situation at his company. His question reminded us that one of us (Jack) actually learned the lesson we're discussing in this column very early in his career when, as a plastics engineer at GE, he blew up a factory in Pittsfield, MA. Very fortunately, no one was injured, but the roof was obliterated and every window on the top floor of the facility was shattered.

Immediately, word came from headquarters: "Come in for a meeting." Or, as the heart-pounding, inner translation understood it to mean: "Come in to get canned."

Instead, something amazing happened. Group Executive Charlie Reed, a brilliant scientist with a professorial bent, had personnel development as his agenda. With gentle determination, he applied the questioning Socratic method to carefully explore all the reasons for the explosion, the ways it might have been prevented, and just as important, what would have to change in the laboratory for such a thing to never happen again. His approach to the disaster in his office – imagine, a blown up factory! – made a lasting and powerful impression.

Look, you cannot be in business and avoid messy or downright unsuccessful situations forever. To paraphrase, "junk" happens. Just remember, when it does, you'll be all the better if you own up to it fast, and come to your boss prepared to stick around for a good, long conversation about the road up, out, and forward.
Jack Welch is Executive Chairman of the Jack Welch Management Institute.