It’s a sticky situation: Your boss says or does something that you know is incorrect, but what do you do about it? Do you let them know they’ve made a mistake, or do you hold your tongue and let someone else be the bearer of bad news?
Some managers love it when their team questions their decisions, because they know they don’t have all the answers. Others? Well, let’s say they’re less open to feedback.
If your boss prefers to be right (who doesn’t?) and tends to not take criticism well, try these steps if you have to tell him he’s wrong:
- Pick your battles. Before you lay on the criticism, ask yourself, how important is it that I correct this? If your boss is misquoting your favorite movie or mixing up the tiny details of how something happened, it’s probably not worth correcting them. If, on the other hand, their mistake will be costly to the project or the company, it’s probably worth finding a way to let them know about it.
- Choose your time carefully. Once you’ve decided that you do need to speak up, think very carefully about when and how. If at all possible, speak to your boss in private, so there’s no chance you will embarrass him in front of others. Correcting your boss in front of a client or in front of his boss is probably the worst possible time, because your boss has the most at stake.
- Use suggestions instead of statements. Setting yourself up for an “I’m right, you’re wrong,” conversation is probably never going to end well, so couch your correction or criticism as a suggestion or opinion. “I think this would be a better way to handle…” When you don’t come out swinging with the “You’re wrong,” bat, you also make it easier for them to buy in and agree with you.
- Back up your statements with data. It may be important to show them quantitatively where the problem is and how your solution will fix it. Data is only as good as the way it’s presented, though, so be sure to be clear and concise.
- Offer a solution. Nobody likes to hear that they’re wrong, but it’s even worse when there seems to be no point to it. Instead of just pointing out a mistake, offer a suggested solution for how to fix it.
- Don’t assign blame. When we’re showing someone where they went wrong, it’s easy to start assigning blame to character traits. “You didn’t do this because you weren’t paying attention,” or “This got missed because you’re lazy.” Clearly, this is not a good strategy to take with your boss, no matter what your relationship with her. Instead, focus on behavior rather than character. “I noticed that this got missed. How can I help you make sure that doesn’t happen again?”
- Don’t be afraid to admit when you make a mistake. If you’re never wrong either, it will be hard to convince your boss (or anyone) that he should admit his own mistakes. Set a good example for everyone around you by owning your mistakes — and working to correct them.
Of course, even if you handle it perfectly, there’s no guarantee that your boss will admit to his mistake — or even that he made a mistake. In that case, go back to step one and ask yourself how important the issue is. Know when it’s time to escalate and take your concerns to someone else in the company. You might want to go to HR first (who will likely agree to keep your concern confidential) before addressing your boss’ boss directly.
When you see an egregious problem, it’s important to speak up, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. Otherwise, you become part of the problem — by “just following orders” — and you become complicit in whatever results.
Have you ever had to tell a boss they were wrong? What happened? What are your best tips for politely telling someone they’re wrong? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Bernard Marr is a Keynote Speaker and Leading Business and Data Expert.
Image: Employees talk at offices in downtown Madrid. REUTERS/Susana Vera