How to be Great at Delivering Bad News

One of the best scenes in the 2011 movie Moneyball is when assistant Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, is tasked with trading Oakland Athletics baseball player Carlos Pena to another team.

You can see the consternation and fear on Brand’s face when he learns of this assignment. This is not a part of the job he wants to deal with.

While the “bad news” scene of him trading this player is less than a minute long, we in the audience get to fully experience the discomfort (complete with long pauses and tense body language).

We also get to observe somebody doing a great job delivering bad news.

If you have ever had the unenviable task of delivering bad news, then you are familiar with this discomfort.

I understand this discomfort. A couple of years ago I needed to fire an employee for insubordination.

I have always hated that term, insubordination. The word makes the act sound more pretentious than it really is.

In this case, the employee had a longstanding problem getting along with his lead. Over time the stress was beginning to affect general department productivity. I offered up some strategies in the preceding months, but the issues predated my arrival in the organization and seemed solidified. They just couldn’t get along.

One day it reached a tipping point as the employee lashed out at the lead. When I learned of the incident, I knew it was time to make a change.

I remember feeling the dread of that upcoming meeting with the employee. I felt like Peter Brand learning of his assignment to deliver the bad news.

My attempt wasn’t as good as Brand’s though.

I had all the words, and I knew my intention, but the message was not as crisp as it should have been.

Our meeting was a mess.

Since then I have learned how to better handle delivering bad news. Some of the lessons I’ve learned are below.

Lesson 1 – Create one clear message

Easy, right?


Clear messages are not diluted, and they are not sugarcoated. One clear message will be the focus of a bad news conversation.

Don’t use the criticism sandwich of good thing, bad thing, good thing. Bad news is bad news so get right to the point.

In my meeting with this employee, we were all over the board. I was talking about what was going right, and what was going wrong, and why it wasn’t working, and a number of other things.

In retrospect, our meeting seemed to resemble a disjointed break-up conversation between two teenagers.

I hadn’t learned the lesson of clarity yet.

Lesson 2 – Deliver the message and any supporting information, and then be quiet

Peter Brand did this well. He spoke a few sentences and then was quiet (really uncomfortable, but quiet).

Bad news, like all news, needs to sink in. I have witnessed bad news conversations where the deliverer was talking too much. The extra talking seemed to be an attempt to deal with the speaker’s uneasiness.

Being quiet in these situations is hard, but necessary. Let the tension be present in the quiet, it will reinforce your clear message.

Lesson 3 – Provide honest answers (if you have them)

Once the news has sunk in, there may be some questions. Answer them as best you can.

If you don’t know the answer, then say so.

Again, resist the urge to talk too much. Too much talking can sometimes cloud the bad news message.

Lesson 4 – End the meeting and move on.

Once the bad news has been delivered, then what?

It depends on the news.

If you are terminating someone, then the meeting ends and you go your separate ways.

If you are presenting poor financial numbers, then you may be leaving the meeting with some work to do and another meeting in the future.

Just make sure to end the meeting as soon as reasonably possible.

The longer the meeting drags on, the more likely your message may be blunted by the additional conversation.

Moving on is also a part of this lesson. The clear message has been delivered and it’s now time for you to refocus on the positive.

It might take a minute to get going in the right direction again, but the sooner the better.

To be sure, life is not a movie. Actors know the lines, the scene, and the story arc. In life, we don’t always know these things. We don’t know how the other person is going to react.

Effectively delivering bad news is difficult to do. Getting through the bad news, though, is often a necessary first step to getting to the good news.

BIO: Jonathan is the founder of The Red Cabbage – a site dedicated to personal improvement (not vegetables).