Delivering The Bad News, Safely

Jan 19, 2018 · 4 min read

Delivering The Bad News, Safely

Reliability engineering includes delivering bad news. This piece of equipment will fail soon, this design won’t survive outdoor use.

We start early with engineering judgment on design weaknesses. Continue by organizing groups to evaluate and comment on what will likely fail. We test, prod, poke and force failures to occur. Then we tally the actual performance and compare that to the what we hoped.

We are the bearers of bad news all too often.

So how do you avoid the stigma attached to that bad news?

Guilt by Association

“The nature of bad news infects the teller.” Shakespeare

The phrase of ‘don’t kill the messenger,” originated from ancient Greece and Persia where messengers bearing bad news were slain. Likewise, if the message was good the messenger was treated as a hero. In either case, the messenger was not the cause of the news, just relaying a message.

If a prototype fails in an environmental test at nominal temperatures, the design, assembly, the prototype designed and built by others failed. Yet, you know as I do, that letting the program manager about the failure is dangerous. You are not likely to be slain on the spot, yet more likely infected with the taint of the bad news.

Take solace in the fact others in the business of delivering bad new likewise feel the wrath of the recipients. Weathermen, doctors, and the USP driver all enjoy comments, disdain or joy, and praise depending on the news.

It is something we do, we associate our response to information, good or bad, to the messenger even if they are simply the messenger. Being aware of this behavior arms you with the knowledge to help you avert the consequences of the association or at least lessen it a bit.

Be a Friend or Trusted Advisor First

Deliver good news early and often. Smile. Deliver on time or early. Be someone that your team likes. Build relationships with your co-workers and teammates such that they like you.

Be pleasant. Snarling about traffic or the weather associates you with the bad weather. Complaining the slow barista for your morning coffee associates that response to slowness to you. Instead, mention how well the car’s heated seats are working. Or, mention the funny conversation you enjoyed while standing in line.

It is being positive, upbeat, genuinely the ‘glass is half full’ kind of person that increases your likability. If you happen to be attractive or wear a suit well, you have an advantage, others tend to like you based solely on appearance.

The point is our day to day behavior builds our reputation and our relationship with those we will eventually bring bad news. It is harder to respond harshly to someone that we like.

Deliver Bad New Well

If a prototype displays an unexpected failure, and we know revealing that information may carry by association an unwanted backlash, what can you do? Ignoring the information or asking someone else to deliver the message are not really viable or helpful.

Instead, try to minimize the association with the news. Here are three techniques that you may consider when next delivering bad news.

1. Just the facts.

Instead of saying the prototype failed to meet the reliability performance goals, describe the test conditions, the measurements, and the readings. Let the recipient draw the conclusion. This is difficult to do given the ‘get to the point’ nature of business meetings, yet in a report, or presentation, or conversation, you do not have to (always) state the conclusion.

2. Stay Out of the Line of Fire

If making a presentation do not stand in front or near the screen. If presenting a written report, set it off to the side. If demonstrating the failure with a prototype, move away from the equipment before saying anything about the failure.

By physically lining up with the presentation, report, or prototype, you are easily associated with the source of the bad news. By shifting to the side, and if possible to the same side of the table and referring to the presentation, report, or device as our common enemy that we, the good guys, need to address, you align with the receiver of good news.

Saying ‘how dare that prototype over there (across the table or room) fail!’ is quite different then, ‘This prototype (right here in my arms) failed.’

3. Sandwich the Bad News

This one I learned when learning how to coach competitive youth soccer teams. Start with something possible, “good hustle on that play”. Then mention something that needs improvement, “that left foot pass could be a bit sharper.” Then follow up with something positive, “you maintained excellent field position on that attack.” I learned that in order for the soccer player to actually hear the constructive criticism, they first had to be listening. Sharing something positive helped them to actually hear the suggestion and not just hear a complaint or disapproval.

If the first iteration with a co-worker is to grumble about the lack of parking, you are associated with the difficulty of finding parking near your office. Whereas if you start with something positive about how good the coffee is smelling this morning, then mention the need to find a better way to find parking, you take the edge off the negative association of poor parking conditions.

When always delivering bad news it is too easy for others to discount or dismiss the news as you ‘always are complaining’, or ‘nothing is good enough for you’.


We identify faults with products and systems, it is what we do. The delivery of the failure news doesn’t have to stick to you. The taint of unwelcome or unwanted news doesn’t have to create a ‘kill the messenger’ response.

With a little work and effort, you can disassociate with the bad news and you can be likable, both of which help you effectively deliver bad news without getting shot.

Originally published at Accendo Reliability.

Fred Schenkelberg

Written by

Reliability Engineering and Management Consultant focused on improving product reliability and increasing equipment availability.

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