How to Tell Your Bosses They're Wrong
Being Right Without Being Out of Order
We all like to be right, but we can't be right all of the time.
Managers and leaders make mistakes, but errors made at their level can be particularly costly – and, in some cases, disastrous. Reputations are built and ruined, money made and lost, and success earned and risked on the basis of the decisions they take.
But the more organizational power managers have, the less likely people are to pick them up on mistakes, because, well, they're the boss.
This makes it all the more important to speak up when you know that your boss is wrong, but the prospect of doing so can unsettle even the bravest person. Your boss is probably the person who hired you and who signs your paycheck. He or she is one link above you in the food chain, and he might not appreciate being outsmarted by a "subordinate." So, do you risk telling him about his mistake? Or do you bite your tongue and leave the company to sort out the mess?
If your organization's wellbeing and your own integrity matter to you, it's important to conquer your fears and to speak up. It may feel unnatural and risky, and it may go against your office culture, but, when you're graceful and adept, you can help your boss to put things right without upsetting anyone.
This article guides you through some of the most important points to consider when you have to tell your boss she's wrong.
Why It's Important to Say "Stop"
By summoning up the courage to let your boss know when he's wrong, you could prevent a disaster, save a reputation, or protect a career – which could make you a more valuable employee. Speaking up might feel uncomfortable, but it's important to do it, because unchallenged authority can lead to catastrophe.
In the aviation industry, for example, safety depends on good communication within the cockpit. Flight engineers must be prepared to tell their captains when they're wrong, just as captains need to listen to their subordinates.
When researchers found that entrenched hierarchies were preventing this from happening, the industry transformed its procedures. It encouraged subordinates to question their superiors and required crews to carry out post-flight debriefs to discuss what went wrong, what went right, and what could have been handled better. Over two decades, safety errors by humans rather than machines dropped by 50 percent, and most captains now reject cockpit hierarchies in favor of open, two-way communication with their colleagues.
In contrast, a 2013 study of the U.S. healthcare industry found that 440,000 Americans die each year as a result of preventable medical mistakes, like administering the wrong medication or operating on the wrong part of the body. Some of these disastrous outcomes happen because errors tend to be handled less well in operating theaters than in the aviation industry.
Nurses don't always raise concerns with surgeons, and surgeons don't always listen to anesthetists, for example. "Bosses" are generally deferred to and junior colleagues often hold back from voicing their concerns, for fear of being ostracized or punished.
But you become part of the problem when you don't speak up about a boss's mistakes. And then you're complicit in the outcome, too.
See our Book Insight on Black Box Thinking to hear more about the dangers of ignoring mistakes.
Eight Tips for Raising Your Concerns
It can be difficult to predict how your boss will react to being told that she's wrong. It can amount to insubordination for some managers, but others value their people's opinions and appreciate being challenged. Some leaders even expect you to do it.
The key is to do it in the right way, so that your manager doesn't "lose face." After all, no one likes to be told that they're wrong. Get it right, and you could give your professional standing a boost. Just bear in mind the following eight tips.
This article assumes that your boss is open and reasonable. If you know from experience that "feeding back" in your company results in disciplinary hearings more often than fair hearings, take extra care.
1. Do Your Homework
You must be certain that your boss has actually made an error before you mention it. Remember that he likely has access to more information than you and that he could, in fact, be right. Double check the issue, because flagging something incorrectly will only make you look out of touch.
You'll also need to develop at least one possible solution that you can offer. Try to support your suggestions with data – you may be able to provide insights that your boss doesn't have. Whether or not your solution gets adopted, having a remedy at the ready will demonstrate your initiative, give you credibility, and allow you to move the conversation past the error to focus on putting things right.
2. Check Your Motives
Before you knock on your boss's door, take a moment to think whether it's really worth mentioning her mistake. It's probably best to let minor matters drop, so as not to appear moaning, critical or undermining. This will also make any intervention that you do make in the future far more impactful.
Also consider whether you feel like speaking up just to be contrary or nitpicky. You could be about to make matters a whole lot worse, without good cause. But if there's a solid business reason to worry, or if the mistake might damage your boss's reputation, she may be relieved to hear your concerns.
3. Time It Right
Choosing the right moment to grab your boss's attention is crucial. Don't expect to be able to stride into his office with a list of problems and receive a warm welcome, or to raise the issue in a team meeting and be thanked for it. Difficult conversations will most likely go well when you allow your boss to choose a time when he can give you his full attention.
However, in the event that you spot an immediate and critical problem unfolding, don't hesitate – you may have little choice but to speak up publicly, before it's too late. Just remember that it's still your boss's responsibility to decide how to proceed.
4. Show Respect and Humility
Whenever possible, speak to your boss privately, so that you don't publicize the issue and embarrass her in front of other people.
If it's an emergency situation and speaking privately isn't an option, raise the issue respectfully and in a way that doesn't challenge the chain of command or threaten your boss's position. If he shuts you down mid-flow, accept this, and take up the issue again later behind closed doors.
Start by politely asking permission to discuss a difficult issue. This gives your boss a moment to brace herself and to invite you to continue. If all is well, move on in a spirit of respect. Maturity, empathy and humility will likely ease the situation, whereas being opinionated, gloating or acting like you know more than your boss will "go down like a lead balloon."
It's essential to stay professional and to concentrate on the business, even if you're motivated to speak because of how your boss's error will impact you personally. The last thing you want to do is to sound as if your own interests matter more than the company's, or to zero in on your boss's personal failures, so focus on how her mistake will impact your team's goals and the company's mission.
5. Mind Your Language
Tread carefully when using words like "wrong" and "mistake." An "I told you so" tone and blunt language that apportions blame will make it appear as if you're out to "score a win." If your boss thinks that you've come to expose or insult him, he'll just dig in or, worse, retaliate.
So, be polite and tactful. Use less emotive, more collaborative language, and lead your boss into a problem-solving session rather than an argument. Try to clear the way for him to buy into your ideas without taking offense or losing face.
6. Escalate Your Concern Cautiously
If you feel that your boss's error has legal, financial or health and safety implications, you could be justified in escalating your concerns. The HR department is often a good place to go to test out your thoughts, in confidence before turning to your boss's boss.
Again, be sure to control your emotions and to moderate your language. Remember that your own reputation is at stake, too.
If your boss's actions are especially serious, or even illegal, it's important that you put your concerns in writing, to cover yourself. You might want to take stronger action, too, but take care, because whistleblowing can itself have serious consequences.
7. Admit Your Own Mistake
At some point in this process, you might find that it's you who's made a mistake. Your reaction to being corrected can matter as much as how you told your boss that he was wrong. Take the correction with good grace and, if appropriate, offer an apology. Otherwise, you could seriously damage your relationship with your boss.
8. Let Go
Sometimes, you have to accept that your boss will press ahead. Maybe you failed to convince her, or she can't be seen to change her mind. Whatever the reason, when it becomes clear that she's "sticking to her guns" it's usually best to bow out gracefully and avoid raising the issue again.
In some cases, it might be wise to make a note of the fact that you raised a concern, in case of future investigations.
Telling your boss that he or she is wrong can be a daunting prospect. If you go about it clumsily or with unhelpful motives, working relationships can be damaged and your job security put at risk.
Many managers, however, are pleased when you let them know that they're not making the best decision, especially if you prevent a potential crisis by doing so. Do it respectfully, tactfully, appropriately, and in a timely manner, and acknowledge your boss's right to make the final decision.
Then you'll be playing your part in averting problems, saving reputations, and boosting careers – including your own!
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