Don't shoot the messenger. Anger or frustration not directed at you.
January 21, 2019 11:11 AM   Subscribe

As a project manager, I frequently have to deliver news of things being late. Understandably people get upset. I've been upset in similar scenarios. What are some good ways to handle these situations? "life pro tips" if you will, for both being sympathetic and not taking things personally?
posted by aeighty to Human Relations (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Anticipate that people will have this reaction, and do your best to assimilate the understanding that it's not personal.

Validate their emotions, this calms people down. Once that's done, gently push back on their framing so they don't build resentment towards the process/management. ("Yes it's late, and that sucks, AND, this is what's happening so that we hear about delays sooner/so delays won't happen as often". Corollary: anticipate delays and build that into timelines. And/or, if possible, though it may of course not be, do what you can to change the process so things aren't late as often, or so that information gets communicated to you sooner).
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:20 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]

Usually when people are upset it's because of one of two reasons - is a surprise to them that things are late or
2. it is a consistent problem

1. For one you need to start setting expectations way before a due date (hence the helpful color coding Green, Yellow, Red on projects) days leading up so that on that date you can hold accountable involved parties that held back deliverables.
2. Gather the parties that consistently hold back deliverables and facilitate a session on how you can help get them the resources / information they need to move a project forward. It could be simple bandwidth to misunderstanding of what is expected, etc. At least explaining why they are important to the project and how you can help gets them involved.

Also, most experienced professionals know the role of the Project Manager - it's to keep things moving but you're not a miracle-maker. As someone relying on project dates, I need to know if there are expected delays and expect them to help smooth our bumps. I never take it personally unless I'm overpromised constantly.
posted by hillabeans at 11:31 AM on January 21 [16 favorites]

Good advice above. Also it's important to not dwell on the lateness part but what the new plan is. "Due to __, I have learned that we are not going to hit our target date on Feb. 1. Instead, so and so will provide __ by Feb.15."
posted by bleep at 11:34 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]

I work in an agile environment (mostly as a product owner), and I have found that if you and your team have been able to deliver smaller chunks of functionality over the course of time, it is no nearly as big of a deal as when you have delivered nothing and are continuing to deliver nothing. Incremental delivery also allows you to pretty rapidly know how things are going and whether or not you are going to be able to make a goal date.
posted by rockindata at 12:37 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]


That's key. Surprises are bad. Set expectations. Use reporting techniques within your project team so you know early enough to manage those expectations.
posted by uberchet at 12:37 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]

A little more context would probably be helpful. In construction, things are late all the time due to perverse incentives and the fact that estimating construction schedules is just really hard. Customers are usually understanding, although for sure the level of understanding varies based on how entitled and just plain volatile that customer is. When they get angsty about it, it's usually because several things have gone wrong (or have been perceived by them to go wrong anyway, not really the same thing) and/or because they haven't had consistent contact and messaging throughout the process. The goal is to keep the customer sort of gently cradled as they get passed along from stage to stage, so that they always feel informed and heard. It's also good if they can see activity rather than just, say, a half-finished construction project with nobody working at it. It is occasionally worth sending people over to do work just to make the customer happier, even if this isn't really the most efficient way to do the job.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:39 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]

As a project manager, if there are delays that are taking the project off track, you're responsible for working with the team to determine the path to green. When you deliver the bad news, you also deliver info on how the project will manage the problem to resolution.

You should also be managing risks so that you know in advance where/when problems are likely to occur and have a plan to deal with them should they arise.

Delays should never be a surprise unless someone is not communicating issues.
posted by shoesietart at 12:40 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]

A mental hack: You are an actor and have been hired to play the role of beleagured project manager informing difficult clients of yet another slip in their project schedule.
posted by forforf at 2:43 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]

Try to develop more of a rapport with the Sales team, they are pushed hard by the owners to always promise the moon to clients. Gently try to get them to envision a more realistic kinda moon.

Delivering bad news: clear & firm first, sympathetic next.
posted by ovvl at 4:58 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]

Nthing deliver no surprises.

If you know a significant aspect of a project is going to be late, then those who are going to be affected by that should know too, basically immediately. Your own context will determine whether that's an hourly or weekly update, but fundamentally this information should never be secret. Along with the update on timing you should also be outlining what's changed and be ready to discuss what the mitigation can be.

If what has changed is that the timeframe was always bullshit and only now are we telling people, yes, you should expect push back and you need to reevaluate your systems generally. Otherwise constant communication generally keeps people happy and engaged or at least understanding and not yelling at you.

If you are a mid-level, rather than head, PM your communication needs to be up and down the chain and in that order.
posted by deadwax at 6:48 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]

I am frequently the messenger of bad news. My only "pro tip" is prime the receiver verbally for how they are likely to feel. Do not make them wait until the end of the sentence to know the news is bad.

For example, "Hi Coworker, I need to have a difficult conversation with you. It will probably make you feel frustrated. You see, project ABC will be late ...."

That introduction 1. acknowledges upfront that their feelings are valid and you understand and you are right there with them, and 2. typically makes people expect the absolute worst, so what you say doesn't feel as bad. Depending on the situation, tell them what you are already doing to fix it. Be brief to give them a chance to respond. Don't focus on what led you to this situation, though it is okay if they ask. Try to focus on what is being done to make it better.

When I start difficult conversations like this, the person on the receiving end often concludes our talk with things like, "Well that wasn't too bad!" or "You're right, that is pretty frustrating. But all we can do is XYZ." Which is much better than watching their face turn red.

posted by BusyBusyBusy at 11:01 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]

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