Let’s face it: Nobody is keen on confronting a boss. “In theory, intelligent people are bound to disagree, and intelligent superiors will want to hear all perspectives,” says Ed Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics in Albuquerque, N.M., and author of “Make Work Great” and “Four Secrets to Liking Your Work.” “In practice, politics come into play, and business needs drive decision timing.”
So is questioning a manager’s plan or pointing out a miscalculation worth doing? Here are some tips on when, where and how to speak up.
The cost of being quiet
Perhaps the first consideration is whether identifying the error would bring potential benefits. “If nothing will change even if the error is acknowledged, you should seriously consider what you or the company stands to gain from calling it out. There’s no point complaining about a decision that can’t be reversed,” Muzio says. “You’re likely to be labeled as ‘disruptive’ and ‘not a team player’ if your focus is on 20/20 hindsight rather than on what should be done next.”
But in circumstances where action now can prevent consequences later, the momentary uneasiness of drawing attention to a possible mistake is often far preferable to the damage of letting it slide.
“At times, your boss’s thinking might be incorrect because she is missing key information that could sway her point of view and, ultimately, alter the course of her decision,” says Matthew Randall, executive director of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania. “If you have knowledge of such information, whether from a formal report or from informal intelligence gathered through the unofficial communication channels within your organization, it’s best to share this data privately with your boss — sooner, rather than later.”
Another danger of not speaking up is giving the boss the wrong impression. “Silence can cause harm when the boss interprets it as a signal of agreement,” says Kerry Patterson, co-author of The New York Times best-seller “Crucial Conversations.” “If employees don’t speak up when they have no intention of actually following their boss’s plan, they may suffer consequences in the long run.”
Handle matters respectfully
Just as an employee does not like to be called out in front of others, a supervisor deserves the same consideration. If you decide to say something, lower the potential for embarrassment and defensiveness by holding the conversation in private. Likewise, remember that “You are wrong” is a difficult message for anyone to hear, so focus on the actual issue rather than on the satisfaction of being correct.
Patterson offers these additional suggestions for easing tensions:
Start with safety. Begin by clarifying your respect and your intent. Help your boss understand that your intent is to provide a different viewpoint you think will help achieve your mutual goal. It’s possible to have a healthy disagreement when you discuss the issue in a way that shows you are simply trying to discover the best solution.
Stick with the facts. Don’t lead with your judgments or conclusions. Start by describing in nonjudgmental and objective terms the behaviors that are creating problems.
Get your motives right. Sometimes we wait to bring up concerns until we’re irritated. This is ineffective because at that point our goal is no longer to be constructive, it’s to punish. Before opening your mouth, ask yourself, “What do I really want?”
Agree where you can. If you agree with your boss’s overarching plan, say so. Build on it with the piece you think is missing, but avoid nitpicking over trivial details.
Invite dialogue. Encourage your boss to share her perspective. The result of your openness will be a greater openness on your boss’s part as well.
Finally, remember that while you may walk in 110 percent sure you are right, there is always the possibility that things aren’t as they seem. “There may be other facts you’re not privy to, including some that you’re not allowed to know,” Muzio says. “Present clearly and compellingly, yet leave room for the possibility that you’re the one who is mistaken.”