Dos and Don’ts: How to Tell the Boss He’s Wrong

How to Tell the Boss He’s Wrong:
The Dos, The Don’ts, and The PowerPhrases to Give Feedback Up the Ladder

Is telling the boss they’re wrong a career-limiting or career-enhancing move?

While all bosses are different, most managers want to hear about it when they’re about to make a mistake.
How you tell them will make the difference between your words being taken as welcome information or insubordination.

1. Acknowledge the boss’ authority

DON’T: Act like you know more than the boss does.
Why not?: It can prompt the boss to defend his/her superior knowledge.
DO: Let the boss know you respect his/her position and/or knowledge.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “I see your point. Have you considered…?”
POISON PHRASE/ What not to say: “I’m the expert in this since I do it all day every day.”

2. Show you’ve considered his/her approach

DON’T: Dismiss his/her suggestion without at least acting like you’re giving it some thought.
Why not?: It can imply that the idea is so bad you don’t even need to think about it. It can prompt the boss to think you’re dismissing it without understanding it.
DO: Pause before responding.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “Hmm…I hear that.”
POISON PHRASE/ What not to say: “Yeah, but…” Use collaborative rather than competitive language.

DON’T: Try to win.
Why not?: Where there’s a winner, there’s a loser. That polarizes the conversation and can entrench your boss further into defending his/her idea.
DO: Position the discussion as being you and your boss against the problem.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “Do you think WE could try it this way to save time?”, “What if WE…”
POISON PHRASE/ What not to say: “My way is better.”

3. Keep it professional

DON’T: Talk about how the boss’ decision imposes on you.
Why not?: It can sound like you’re putting your own interests above those of the company.
DO: Talk in terms of company and department goals: accomplishing the mission and saving time and money.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “I think we could save time and money with a different approach.”
POISON PHRASE/ What not to say: “Your way takes me too long.”

4. Listen to understand, and make sure the boss knows you understand

DON’T: Dominate the conversation.
Why not?: The best negotiators listen more than they talk.
DO: Give your boss plenty of time to have his/her say, even if you disagree.
POWERPHRASE / What to say: “I respect your position and want to be sure I understand why you think it’s important to do it this way.”
POISON PHRASE/ What not to say: “I know all that already.”

5. Ask permission to present your position

DON’T: Launch in to the discussion without paving the way.
Why not?: The timing may not be good, and even if it is, by asking permission, you give your boss the chance to brace his/herself and invite the feedback.
DO: Ask your boss for a specific amount of time to raise a concern.
POWERPHRASE / What to say: “I’d like five minutes of your time to share my perspective on the widget decision and get your feedback on my thinking. Is now a good time, or could we schedule a meeting at another time?”
POISON PHRASE/ What not to say: “I don’t like the widget decision for the following 300 reasons…”

6. Be pleasantly persistent

DON’T: Give up to soon.
Why not?: It takes time for people to change positions. A “no” can signal a need for making a stronger case for your idea.
DO: Gather new evidence and ask to make your case a second and even a third time.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “I’ve looked into this idea some more and would like the opportunity to run my perspective by you in the light of new information. Can I have five minutes of your time?”
POISON PHRASE/ What not to say: “I give up.”

7. Know when to let go

DON’T: Keep bringing up an idea once it’s clear it won’t be accepted.
Why not?: It creates resentment.
DO: Bow out gracefully.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “Thanks for letting me share my views.”
POISON PHRASE/ What not to say: “No one listens to me.”

The greater the risk the greater the potential gain
Telling your boss s/he’s wrong often comes with risks. But when you do it will skill and grace, you can prove yourself to be a trusted resource who helps your boss look good. Bosses care about results, saving time, and saving money. However, in the end, it comes down to caring about looking good. An employee who effectively tells his boss s/he’s wrong is an employee who helps his boss look good – no – it’s an employee who helps his boss look great.

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