I have some bad news. And it will not be surprising for most product managers. Our job frequently involves telling people things they do not want to hear. In fact, I would say the job of a product manager involves more difficult conversations than most. Even communicating what some would consider very bad news.
Those tough conversations happen all the time. Product managers often have to say no to requests from customers and colleagues and even the big boss.
Just consider a few of the complex conversations product managers have with different groups. You have to explain to sales why a feature request is not on the roadmap, tell executives that a release is going to be late, talk with customers when the product has a bug, and share revised plans with cross-functional teams which requires existing work to be put on hold. Maybe even all on the same day. (Of course, for your sake, I hope not.)
But it is all part of being a leader — within your company and of your product. The best product managers are able to navigate these complex situations with skill and care. This means communicating confidently and professionally, no matter how awkward or challenging it might be.
In fact, I would bet that there is a direct correlation between a product manager’s ability to handle difficult conversations and how influential that product manager is within the organization.
And I do have some good news too — there are strategies you can use when sharing a tough message.
At Aha!, I am fortunate to work with a group of accomplished former product managers. Our Customer Success team together has more than 170 years of experience and has helped bring 890 products to market. There is no better group anywhere that I could have asked to share advice on this topic.
Here are best practices for how good product managers deliver bad news:
1. Establish trust
“Nothing you do when you deliver bad news can make up for a lack of trust built. Have you been flexible and open to other points of view in the past? Did you establish trust with cross-functional teams by consistently delivering value while also admitting to mistakes (with a plan to fix)? Did you push for greatness in the face of difficult choices or a tough environment?” —Bonnie Trei
2. Identify impact and communicate quickly
“You have to determine if the news really is ‘bad.’ Or is it just unwanted? For example, the impact might be limited to a specific group. In that case, it might just be a matter of explaining the broader context. If you determine that it really is bad news, investigate what led to that situation. Provide a possible solution to get back on track and solicit feedback to collaborate on a final plan so that the team is collectively working towards the goal in lock-step.” —Tahlia Sutton
“Communicate right away (instead of at the last possible moment). This will continue to build trust — even if the message is not always positive. Consistent communication also gives you the best chance of finding another solution along the way if needed. Plus, it is just considerate.” —Dru Clegg
3. Be honest and direct
“Honesty really is the best policy — whether it is accepting blame for miscalculating effort when your release is delayed, or being forthright with your disappointed dev team about the need to put current work on hold and pivot to something else because of a change in strategy. If you are honest about the reasoning, it helps soften the blow.” —Deirdre Clarke
“Product managers often have to break the news to customers about ideas that will not be implemented. Always be direct in your reply: ‘We are not moving forward with this idea. There are other priorities that will have a bigger impact and here is why.’ Do not do the bury the news in an otherwise positive statement, couch your language, or ramble on. People see through that obfuscation. It is better to share the message clearly — then stop talking.” —Jessica Groff
4. Take ownership and be specific
“Colleagues often have a vested interest in a specific feature, so sharing that it will not be added can be difficult. Take ownership when conveying the news and do not use the passive voice. Say that ‘we’ have decided — not ‘it was decided.’ If possible, deliver the news face-to-face and take questions. Perhaps most importantly, after you have delivered the bad news and answered all the questions, go have ice cream for lunch. (Being a product manager requires this occasionally.)” —Karen Maslowski
“For me, the key is being able to use specifics to explain the decision. However thoughtful and kind the approach and delivery, unless the requestor understands why, you will only cause frustration and confusion. Being able to point to a clear, customer-focused strategy and the business priorities helps with this.” —Steve Dagless
5. Show empathy and move forward
“As consumers ourselves, we can understand the disappointment when you learn that a product does not work as expected or an update will be delayed. Share your own frustrations if you can. Show empathy — that you understand how this might leave people feeling let down.” —Amy Woodham
“We all want to solve problems and get great work done. When you are responsive, you free people up to do just that. Hold onto news for too long and you may cause bigger issues. For example, if a customer is requesting that something should work differently, it is because they have hit a roadblock. If the idea the customer is requesting is not currently a priority, you should be clear about that as soon as possible and offer a workaround if one exists. Then you both can move forward.” —Austin Merritt
Few people enjoy being the bearers of so-called bad news. Do not make it harder on yourself by bungling the delivery.
We promise that sharing tough news will be a bit easier if you use the techniques outlined above. And remember that even when you are sharing why you will not do something, you are building trust with your team in the process. That will serve you well in the future — because saying no is something all product managers must do.
What tips do you have for difficult conversations at work?