Telling Your Boss That He/She Is Wrong

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • Bringing an error to your boss’s attention.
  • Doing so without getting fired.
  • Doing so without jeopardizing a future working relationship.
Telling Your Boss That He/She Is Wrong

It’s a fact: on the career of every SharpMan a little rain must fall. Sometimes this rain takes the form of a particularly precarious position — your boss is wrong and you’ve got to tell him or her so. Whether simply stupid or plainly unethical, those above you are not immune to mistakes and poor judgment.

Assuming you don’t care about his well-being, allowing your boss to wallow in the puss of his own errors is not a problem. However, when a supervisor’s error puts your own neck on the line (again, making you look stupid or forcing you to carry out an order with unethical implications), tactful action is required to save your hide, your job and your ongoing future with the wrong-doing manager.

The key to skating through this type of problem is to point to the error in a way that does not bruise your boss’s ego. Rather than telling your boss that she is an incompetent yo-yo, allow her to accept your view without admitting that her position was patently ridiculous.

Check out these SharpWork tips for tactfully confronting your wrong-doing superior:

A Wrong Fact

The story: Your boss is just wrong. He says that a sales number is X, when you know for a fact that it’s Y.

The SharpMove: Rather than tell your boss that (a) he’s sooooo wrong and, (b) he’s suuuuch a moron, consider bringing in some materials that document the correct number and say "Hey, I guess we confused that number. It says here that the sales number is Y." In addition to clearing up the error, your delivery will allow your boss to save face, while making you look thorough.

The Impossible Dream

The story: Your boss wants you to deliver on something that is not possible: a production schedule; a large quantity; an unrealistic outcome.

The SharpMove: OK, so you know that it can’t be done. Rather than making yourself look like a nay-sayer, take a few moments to think about the advantages (e.g. economies of scale, saved communications, better client rapport) to be gained by setting a more realistic goal and then express your doubts in the form of a question. Instead of saying, "No way, we can’t do that!" try, "Do you think it would be better to wait until Bob has all the numbers together? That way we can send the client one great-looking proposal with all the info. It would also give his team the time they need to get everything together." In other words, ask a question that lets your boss come up with the answer — and sweeten her impetus to do so by making the outcome that much better.

The Wrong Guy

The story: Your boss suddenly wants something out the door and suddenly it’s on your plate — despite the fact that it’s totally not your job.

The SharpMove: Rather than telling her "That’s not in my job description," take a more subtle road by pointing out economies of time and effort to be gained by shifting the task to the person’s job it is. For example, say "Great, let’s get this out — but, you know, I don’t have any of those numbers and Pat does this all the time. In fact, since she has the relationship with the guys over there, I bet she could get this out much faster."

The Worst Plan Ever

The story: Your big-shot boss has just had another "brilliant" idea that’s far, far from brilliant. In fact, it’s likely to blow up in the whole department’s face.

The SharpMove: Rather than telling him that he’s a complete idiot, act like one yourself. We don’t mean actually act like an idiot; just ask him for more information about his proposed action. Ask him to more thoroughly describe (and by doing so think through) his ideas. Try saying, "Great. So just to be clear, you want me to do X, and after that Y? It would be great to get a bit more information from you while I’m in here."

The Artful Dodger

The story: Your boss wants you to fudge a report, dishonestly assuage a client’s timing concerns or simply "rearrange" a client file incident to ongoing litigation. Sure it may be her order, but you’re pretty sure it will be your behind if it ever blows up. Plus, who really wants to be anyone’s criminal lackey?

The SharpMove: The ideal move is always to avoid this kind of dirty work. The truth is, your name will be the one mentioned should the problem ever come to light. Of course, if your entire office functions as a den of absent ethics, it’s hard to avoid something everyone is doing — and you’ll end up looking like you’re not a "team player."

Apart from leaving the company, you may want to let your boss know that you are uncomfortable with performing tasks you consider unethical before asked to participate and without condemning her participation in those tasks.

Say, "I notice that it’s common for the staff to ‘rework’ files that have been audited — that I thought we aren’t allowed to touch by law. I have a personal ethical conviction that prevents me from doing that. I wanted to let you know so that you wouldn’t unknowingly ask me to ‘fix’ one of those files. Thanks." This way, you’re letting your boss know that even though this goes on all around you, all you ask is for him not to include you in what you consider an unethical task. By explaining that your preference relates to a personal code, rather than a judgment on him and his staff, you may be less likely to offend him.

This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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