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Can your project handle the ugly truth?

Adeline Teoh ed.
March 2, 2015

At one point in your career you will need to face an ugly truth. Maybe the project you’re working on is a dog’s breakfast, or perhaps you need to have a hard conversation with a team member who appears to be sabotaging everyone else’s work. What should you do?

Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Dr Gillian Triggs is the unfortunate messenger of an ugly truth. Last week she fronted the Senate with the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014, which investigated the changes made in the 10 years since A last resort? the report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention in 2004.

Triggs highlighted unsavoury aspects of successive Australian governments’ policies that currently sees close to 1,000 children in detention while their families seek refugee status. That’s ‘governments’ plural, including those under Prime Ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, from both Labor and the Coalition over the span of the report.

For highlighting this shameful record, Triggs attracted the wrath of Prime Minister Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis, which caused Abbott to say the government had “lost confidence” in her. There are allegations she was induced to resign being investigated now.

Triggs, you will note, is a scapegoat. It is not uncommon for project managers to be put in her position when they reveal similarly ugly truths about the project they are managing. At one time or another in your career you will be the bearer of bad news. Whether it’s the pre-cursor to killing a project or making an ethical stance about the project’s outputs or outcomes, you will feel the heat. How you present the ugly truth and how you handle key stakeholders will determine whether you escape unscathed.

  • Identify what a ‘successful outcome’ is. Is it just being heard, or are you after agreement or a resolution?
  • Stick to the facts. Support through concrete evidence will help to stave off doubts.
  • Provide a recommendation or a solution, or request one. People don’t like hear about what’s wrong, they like hearing about what they can do about it.
  • Play the situation, not the people. Avoid stakeholder politics and stand your ground about delivering the information because it’s what’s best for the project.
  • Listen to the response. Reactions may not be as bad as you predict and others may provide valuable inputs or information previously unknown to you. Be open to resolution.

Have you ever had to deliver an ugly truth? What happened?

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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