How You Handle It Can Help Or Hurt Your Career.
By Steve Schumacher
Consider a situation where your boss is about to make a decision that you know is wrong and will end up costing the company money and time. You have thought through the situation and, based on your experience and knowledge, you know the path your boss has chosen is the wrong one.
What do you do?
If you tell the boss he or she is wrong, do you run the risk of being told to mind your own business or, worse yet, get criticized for telling your boss what to do? Or, do you stay quiet and go along with the decision and hope for the best?
Either way, the fear of a negative outcome seems to be about to happen with both of your choices. If you are in this situation, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Mountain or molehill. If the decision your boss is about to make is about minor things, it is probably best to just let it go. If the downside is small and will not affect the company in a big way, accept it and move on. On the other hand, if the decision will be very costly to the organization or make them and you look bad, it is probably best to share your thoughts.
Time and place. Never criticize your boss in public or in front of their boss. Wait until you can speak to your boss alone. Do it in person, not through email, text or voicemail. Electronic messages can be misinterpreted. Tell your boss that you would like to speak to him or her about something, and let them pick the time and place.
Be specific and use data. Do not just say you disagree or that your boss is wrong. Share what you perceive as the negative outcome using data and examples. Back up your opinion with facts and similar situations in the past. Share what you see as near-term and long-term downsides of their decisions. Talk about effects on the company’s mission, time and money.
Listen well. Be careful with your tone of voice. Share what you think as your perspective alone with phrases like “From my perspective” or “This is how I see it.” Work hard at understanding why your boss feels their decision is the right one. Give your boss plenty of time to speak and do not interrupt, even if you disagree.
Use suggestions. Offer your ideas in a way that they are options for the boss to consider, not absolutes. Keep in mind that the boss may have more information than you that is driving the decision. Telling your boss that this is absolutely the only way to go will cause defensiveness. Once that happens, problem solving goes out the window. Do not just criticize; suggest alternative solutions that will not have negative consequences.
Stay professional. When you disagree with your boss and you know they are wrong, you must still keep the conversation civil and business-like. Do not bring up other issues, stay focused yet persistent. Most good leaders accept criticism will, even from subordinates. Do not try to win or assign blame. Your goal is to state your position in a business-like manner and accept whatever outcome happens.
Find what is right. When you come across as only pointing out the fault in the decision, you may come across as a complainer. Let your boss know what areas of the decision you appreciate and think are on track. Be cautious about using the word “wrong.” It can be very inflammatory. Use phrases like “This one area is something we may want to reconsider” or “There are areas here that may need more investigation.”
Know when to go up a level. Going over your boss’s head is always a risky proposition. When the decision they are about to make contains moral, ethical, safety or legal implications, you must take it higher. Consider chatting with your HR folks, who will keep it confidential, to see if your issue has merit.
Know when to let go. For me, I use what I call the “Three Strike Rule.” I will give situations like this three honest tries. If I cannot get the other person to change their mind, I accept it as something out of my control and move on. Sometimes these kinds of things are not hills to die on.
Telling your boss he or she is wrong often comes with risks. When you are able to do it skillfully and tactfully, you will end up making your boss look good.
Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at [email protected].