Project Management

How to send that tough email you’ve been dreading

Reading Time:
4 mins 45 secs
Ben Willmott

No one enjoys sharing bad news, whether that’s a mistake you’ve made, a teammate has, or just a significant delay on a project. It happens though, and as a Project Manager, you need to be ready to share the news with your project stakeholder and take responsibility.

In some cases, you may want to write the email at the end of the day, send it, and close the laptop making sure it’s the last thing you do that day. I’ve done this, and making it tomorrow’s problem is never a good thing, as you’re setting yourself up for an evening of worry and a night of restless sleep.

So the first thing you need to do is, whether possible, get the news preprepared in the morning, so the recipient has time to respond or speak to you, so you at least know what’s going to happen next whilst you’re at work.

Before you even start to summarise the news you need to share, you need to put yourself in the recipient’s shoes to help you understand their situation and ask yourself these questions?

  • What will they think and feel when they receive this news?
  • Based on how well you know them, what are they most likely going to want to do next, a call, a team meeting?
  • How will this news impact them? Do they have to share the information with others, a manager, or a 3rd party?
  • What challenges do they currently have?

With what you gather from the above questions, you can now think about how to help them in your response alongside sharing the news.

For example, if they have a 3rd party that the news will need to be shared with, as one of your recommended actions and next steps, state that you can share the information with this team and book a meeting with them to discuss it.

You do this because no one likes a problem without any solutions or at least mitigating actions. By understanding their situation, and immediately making their life easier, the recipient is more likely to be more positive in their response.

Next, you need to think about the response you want, but at the same time, be realistic. If you follow the guidance in this tip, a good forward-thinking client or stakeholder will clearly not be happy with the news but at the same time recognise the work you’ve put in to already move towards a solution.

Before you start writing the email, make sure you’re writing it for the most critical people on the email, not everyone on CC. If you try to cater to everyone, you’re more likely not to get the required impact.

Now you need to summarise the situation, not too long but also not too short. Knowing your stakeholder or client is critical here, so do they like to the point bullets or a longer, more detailed description?

When describing the situation, break it down into three areas:

  1. The problem
  2. The impact
  3. The solution and next steps.

Don’t hold back when describing the problem; if you try and underplay it, this will only come back to bite you when you need to share more detail or discuss the problem face to face.

Be clear and to the point, with a brief description of the reason for the impact.

The description of the impact needs to describe the immediate issue, then the potentially longer-term impact.

I say potentially, as your solution and mitigation plan should be there to remove the long term impact.

The final area is the solution and next steps. In some cases, you won’t have an answer yet, which is fine, as long as you have clear next steps to get to one.

This final area is critical and significantly impacts how well the news is received. As I said, no one wants a problem without a solution, and this is where you can calm the recipient’s nerves.

So if you have a solution, great, clearly describe the following steps to get to the resolution, and wherever possible, add in the timings too, simply and logically, that can be easily read and understood.

It’s the same approach if you don’t know the solution yet, describe the steps of how you’re going to get there and when. For example, this afternoon, you’re meeting with team X, and following that meeting, you’ll be providing an update on X, Y and Z etc.…

When creating the steps to get to a solution, provide the recipient with options to choose from as you want to engage and help.

Still, make it easy for them, so if you offer them the option to be in a meeting to discuss solutions, give them multiple times they can pick from.

Hold off a little longer once you’ve written your email and share a draft with some trusted colleagues for feedback.

When you stare at the same thing for too long, you often miss some glaring errors, or a colleague could share some insights like

“I wouldn’t mention that; this is something they said they didn’t want to hear about last time we spoke.”

This may sound like a lot of work, but it doesn’t’ have to be; it’s all about thinking about the impact on the recipient and putting the effort in now to reduce the impact of when this news is shared.

You can also try to imagine what it would be like for you to receive this news which will help you write it.

The final tip is, don’t put it off. It’s always tempting, but the longer you leave it, the worse it will get. Plus, the last thing you want is for someone else to raise the issue before you.

Good luck, and hopefully, you’ll never have to use the above!

Ben Willmott
Ben is Delivery Director at the London based creative agency Wunderman Thompson where he creates bespoke ways or working for his clients and teams. Ben is also the founder of The PPM Academy specializing in coaching Project Management, Agile Delivery and how to be more productive at home and work.

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