How Should You Deliver Bad News To A Client?

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How do you break bad professional news?

Regardless of your job title, everyone has had to deliver bad news in the workplace. From not meeting deadlines, to disappointing profits, even to being the voice of concern, delivering tough information means putting yourself out on a ledge. So how do you deliver tough news at work?

Amy Kates is the managing partner of Kates Kesler organization consulting and the coauthor of Bridging Organization Design and Performance. Today we're gonna talk to her about her article, “Design Smart Decision Making into the Organization,” which originally appeared in the journal, People in Strategy.

I recently interviewed Amy for the LEADx Podcast where she shared a failure story about delivering hard news to clients, and how she would do it differently today. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: Will you tell us a story about a time when you failed and what you learned from it? 

Amy Kates: I've had a few of those. As a management consultant, specializing in org-design, our projects always start with a diagnosis. We conduct interviews and focus groups and we come back to our clients with findings and recommendations. And I've made this mistake a couple of times over the past 25 years and both times it was with CEOs. CEOs who were founders of their companies, smart men but with strong personalities. They called me in to fix some specific problems in their company. During the assessment I found other issues and frankly ones that I thought were more important than what they had come to me with. Well, I came back and I told them and both times they fired me from the projects.

What I learned is that you always have to deal with the pain that someone is feeling first and build trust by really authentically caring about their issues; the way they define them. And then you can tell your truth, at the right time. And you know I think this is important advice whether you're consulting in a formal setting or frankly one-on-one in any sort of relationship.

It's all about timing.

Kruse: What advice would you give to yourself when you were first starting out as a manager?

Kates: The advice I would give to myself and the many, many managers and leaders that I get to observe as we work in companies around the world, is to first recognize you are a leader. To your team, you represent the company. Your role is to provide clarity on the priorities, get resources for the team, coach the team. Managers who see themselves as victims of whatever dysfunction is above them and that dysfunction exists in every company. Those who pass that onto their team, undermine their credibility and effectiveness. So I often see managers talking about, “I don't know what they're talking about up there,” or you know, “Over there their objectives are unclear.” Great leaders at any level take accountability, share what they know, admit to what they don't. And I think this is the start to really seeing yourself as a leader and not just a victim of your circumstance.

Kruse: Are there model organizations out there that have figured out how to make great decisions quickly and that became a part of their success?

Kates: Everyone struggles with decisions. And, you know, a company that we've worked with for many years who really puts a lot of time and effort into this is Nike. They've very complex five-dimensional matrixed organization. And they really see the value of those conversations at the intersections. They work through these kinds of decision nodes and decision rights and communicate them. And it's a constant process because as strategy changes, as the environment changes with competitors, then we need to shift power, we need to shift decisions, or we need to create new conversations. So this work, unfortunately, is never done.

I think the hardest transition, particularly for a founder-led company, and entrepreneur startup company, is starting to mature and become complex and need to put in management and business processes. You have to make that shift from the founder or very small group at the top making decisions together to really empowering, delegating, and creating an infrastructure to push decision making down. We work with a lot of companies and it could be even up to half a billion dollars in revenue, a thousand people in the company where decisions are kept very close at the top. And there's a group that works together for a long time and it’s very efficient, until it's not. And all of sudden you realize we don't have anyone else to make decisions. We've become a bottleneck.

So awareness is the first step, that's why those diagnostics and assessments are so important to bring the voice of the organization. What's the problem to solve? And then to really work through decision principles, identifying the key issues that are high value- high risk. And then working through, what's the conversation we need? Who are the players in the room? And who gets the “golden vote”? And there's also a coaching aspect to it, you know, to say to those leaders, “You gotta let go.”

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at