Five Strategies for Negotiating Bad News

Several years ago, as a relatively inexperienced project manager in Toronto, I was sent to a seminar on the art of strategic negotiation held in a hotel conference room out by the airport. The session was led by a real estate guru turned motivational speaker, and while I don’t remember his name, I do remember that he paced the room in a lavalier mic and black swim cap, and that because he’d shaved his eyebrows he resembled a particularly intense mannequin or sunfish.

I’ve managed to forget much of what was presented that afternoon — there were a lot of teamwork exercises that involved making lists and not showing them to anybody, presumably because in a real negotiation with millions of dollars on the table, surreptitious list-making might give you enough of an edge to walk away with the hotel contract AND the waterfront casino.

I remember, though, that a portion of the presentation was dedicated to “dirty tricks,” and we all sat up and paid attention to those. In retrospect, few of the strategies listed as “dirty” were in any way unscrupulous (except the one about home buyers faking multiple high offers and then rescinding them to destroy a seller’s confidence; classic!). In fact, most were generic psychological tactics that anyone with a bit of Skinner under his or her belt might take for granted.

I want to share a handful of them here, since they’ve served me well in recent years when I’ve been in the unenviable position of having to deliver bad news to project stakeholders and negotiate a favorable outcome.

An inevitable part of every project manager’s job is delivering bad news. Projects fail, sometimes catastrophically but more often by degrees, and each incremental point of failure represents both an opportunity to correct problems and a responsibility to come clean with stakeholders. No one wants to admit failure; it’s embarrassing, and it takes a toll on morale and on credibility. And so most project managers dissemble. They use ambiguous language, they avoid confrontation, they defer to others up and down the chain of command; instead of immediately addressing the problem, they batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to blow over, which is just about the worst way to engage in any sort of negotiation.

To many project managers, the notion of failure as a form of negotiation is like being told the guillotine is a form of prisoner rehabilitation. It certainly didn’t occur to me until I heard it from a guy in a swim cap working the airport circuit. No matter how serious the failure, you can expect a spectrum of potential outcomes, and there are strategies to influence where on that spectrum you end up:

  1. Don’t skirt the issue of money. Most of us try to cushion bad news by avoiding discussing the impact of a bad situation, especially when that impact involves money. Part of that is societal conditioning — on some level, many of us feel it’s vulgar to discuss money — and part of it our wariness of inducing sticker-shock. In fact, being coy about money just makes us seem evasive and encourages the other party to lead the negotiation. A better tactic is to use your adversary’s similar discomfort with money to your advantage. Go there immediately and keep the conversation outside of your mutual comfort zone until you’ve delivered the bad news and are ready to discuss the details of fixing the problem. Being frank about money also send the message that you realize the seriousness of the situation are are committed to solving the problem.
  2. Negotiate face to face. Delivering bad news by email is a bad idea by any measure; it polarizes the conversation right from the beginning, and it cedes the advantage by allowing the recipient to react to the problem on his or her own turf. Voicemail and conference calls are similarly disempowering; neither approach allows you the freedom to guide the negotiation. As uncomfortable as it is to deliver bad news in person, just bite the bullet and do it. If nothing else, it’s a show of respect for your stakeholders, who deserve more than a few contrite words in their inbox Monday morning.
  3. Don’t be afraid of a beating. Losing the battle is sometimes necessary to win the war. Confronted with failure, your stakeholders are going to be disappointed; they’re going to feel like you’ve misled them and their instinct may be to lash out. Just as a good parent tries not to invalidate the feelings of a child, not matter how frustrating or hurtful, a good project manager lets angry stakeholders vent their anger without responding in kind. Letting a stakeholder beat you up allows you two advantages: you’ll hopefully siphon off some of the tension, and you get to demonstrate that you’ve maintained your calm while your adversaries have lost theirs.
  4. Provide false choices. This tactic is so common that it’s hard to implement it anymore with any degree of subtlety. I always smile when someone tries it on me (as a former employer actually did not that long ago when attempting to negotiate my severance). To distract from the substantive point of negotiation, focus on a lesser point of contention in which your adversary can choose between two or more equally insignificant options. So for instance: we’ve incurred 50k in cost overruns; should we add that to the final invoice or prorate it?
  5. Restore confidence by setting arbitrary goals and then meeting them. After you’ve weathered a project failure, your stakeholders’ confidence will be abysmally low. To restore confidence, deliberately set several imminent interim goals — it doesn’t matter in the least what those goals are or whether they’re critical to the project; the sole point here is to set easily achievable milestones that will serve to build up confidence in your ability to meet expectations. The more granular your milestone, the more confidence you’ll instill when you meet it. For instance, “I’ll send you a detailed status report by Friday noon” will hold more weight than “I’ll have a status report for you before the end of the week,” even though they’re saying essentially the same thing.

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