How to communicate bad news to your project sponsor

This is a guest post from Helena Liu, PMP.

Delivering bad news to your project sponsor is not an easy task that any project manager. You never know what you can expect. However, projects almost never go according to plan, resulting in extensions and budget increases. Learning how to communicate deal with and communicate bad news to a project sponsor effectively is vital and it can increase your trust and credibility.

Put yourself in their shoes

Before you tell your sponsor what happened, try to put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself, “How would I feel and react if this happened to me?” By recognizing the impact on your sponsor, you can frame the discussion around your sponsor’s point of view. The empathy that you show your sponsor demonstrates that you care about their needs.

Be honest and direct

Tell your sponsor what they need to know. It is most effective to set up a face-to-face meeting to communicate bad news. During the conversation, be honest and direct. Don’t give long-winded excuses and try to tell half-truths.

For example, if your project is over budget, just tell your sponsor that you are over budget and show them how much you are over budget relative to your cost baseline. 

By being honest and direct, you tackle the issue and get to the root cause. You work on finding a solution instead of placing blame.


Helena Lui of

Take responsibility

Don’t make excuses. As the project manager, even though you are not the one delivering, you are still responsible for the deliverable. For example, even though it was your developer who did not deliver his code on time, it is still your responsibility to deal with it.

Actively listen

Once you’ve told your sponsor the bad news, it’s now your turn to listen. Actively listen to what your sponsor has to say. S/he may have additional points that you overlooked or have not considered. Make sure you note down their concerns and address all of them.

Provide alternatives by looking for win-wins

Once you and your sponsor both understand what the issue is, you can provide solutions to your sponsor. Ideally, the alternatives would be a win-win for both of you. Prepare solutions that would address your sponsor’s main concerns. Communicate the pros and cons of each alternative. Focus your conversation on solving the problem and aligning to the best possible solution. By doing so, you can turn a negative situation into a positive one. Your sponsor may trust you more as a result.

Set clear expectations going forward

Once the best alternative is agreed upon, you need to tell your sponsor what’s going to get done and by when. Don’t be too ambitious with your estimates because you don’t want to set your sponsor up for another disappointment. Set realistic and SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed upon, Realistic, and Time-based) goals to complete your project deliverables.


How do you communicate bad news to your project sponsor?

Restate your commitment to the project

Tell your sponsor how much your value the opportunity to work for them and be chosen as the project manager for your project. Your sponsor will be more confident about your delivery knowing that your dedication and commitment to the project has not wavered.

When dealing with your project sponsor, you need to be compassionate and understanding. Delivering bad news is not about pointing fingers and placing blame. Your success is not measured by whether or not you can convince your sponsor that you are “right”. Rather, your success is measured by how much your sponsor likes and trusts you.

Helena Liu is the founder of, a project management community for PMP-aspirants. Sign up for a free class today!


Photograph courtesy of

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2 Responses to How to communicate bad news to your project sponsor

  1. Very good article. It would be a huge mistake to try and hide anything. The only extra advice I can think of would be to have your plan for how you can fix or improve the situation ready. One of the first things the Sponsor will ask is “now what?” and you want to show can lead the way forward.

    • Helena says:

      Hi Paul,

      Great point! When communicating bad news with the project sponsor, it’s not about pointing fingers, but about how do we solve the problem. Before meeting the sponsor, you’d want to present them with the solution and next steps instead of emphasizing the problem.


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