How to Tell Your Boss He’s Wrong

In far too many companies the leadership, over time, can become divorced from the day-to-day experience of front-line employees. This can lead to the occasional boneheaded decision or policy that we so like to deride around the water cooler.  I’ve been on both sides of this, so it’s not always stupidity or evil on the part of management.  Sometimes, we just get things wrong, and need to be reminded that there’s a bigger picture. And this is where you come in. When managers make a decision that just seems, well, dumb, here’s what I think you should do.

Looking UpPassion: To even start down this path, you need to have some passion on the subject.  Do you? Think about it for a day or two, then don’t for a day or two. Still believe there’s a grievance that must be aired? Good, let’s keep going.

Do Your Homework: Do you know what you’re talking about? You’d better. Do a little research in the business community. For example, if you think that an across-the-board-no-exceptions raise freeze is the path to mediocrity and monoculture, check out what’s happened at other companies. Who else is writing about the problem? What are the facts?  It’s also invaluable to talk to people in your network, which bleeds into the next phase.

Hone Your Argument: As you discuss your position with mentors and other people in your network, your position will become refined and, hopefully, strengthened by repeated defense of your ideas.  Try to get your position as succinct, clear and defensible as possible.

Bonus Points for Solutions: A college professor gave some of the best advice I’ve ever heard when he instructed us not to criticize anyone when we couldn’t offer at least an alternative suggestion on how things could be improved. This will help you win friends and influence people.

Make Contact: When I play the role of benevolent gadfly, I usually do it with a well constructed e-mail. Face to face is fine too, but sometimes that can be a little harder, depending on schedules and the size of the company. An e-mail gives the recipient time to read, re-read and ponder what you are communicating. This often leads to a face to face meeting anyhow.

The Aftermath: It’s likely, at least from my experience, that you’ll get to discuss the issue a little further with a decision maker. That may end up in implementation to varying degrees of your arguments, or may just give you insight into why the boneheaded decision is a little less boneheaded than you thought. In any case, and again from my experience, you’ll be noted as someone with some passion and intellectual weight. This can only be a good thing.

It’s lonely at the top sometimes. The more organizational power and authority you have, the less willing people are to disagree with you, or tell you the complete truth. Maybe this is just leftover primate hierarchical instinct, who knows, but we’ve all seen it first-hand. But, speaking as a manager, I’ll say it’s nice to have people around that will tell you when you’re not making the best or most informed decision.

Having said that, don’t make a career out of being the loyal opposition. It’s a lot easier to agitate and snipe from the sidelines than it is to lead and govern a company. Pick your battles, and let conscience and passion be your guide.

One Response to “How to Tell Your Boss He’s Wrong”