How to Talk Back to Your Boss: 10 Techniques


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Bosses often are plain dumb. They make mistakes. And those mistakes, sometimes, can make you look dumb too, which is why a key corporate survival skill is mastering the how-to of talking back to your boss.

This isn't easy. Even decent bosses will resist being told off by an underling, so this is terrain to be crossed only by the deft.

Do you fit the bill? Here are ten tips for doing this right and living to tell about it.

* "Approach the issue from the perspective of being on the same side as your boss," advised leadership consultant Dan Markin.

This is key. Highlight your commonalities, which, in this case, is that you both want the organization to succeed.

* Choose the right medium, said April Masini, who blogs at AskApril, and her wise counsel is that often face-to-face is the way to go here while email may be a misfire. It just is too easy for an email to come across as a cocky and impudent attack on the boss.

* Know who is influencing your boss's decision, urged HR coach Denise Cooper. She explained: "Most employees think the boss can make decisions unilaterally. In organizations that's generally not true. So employees will think their boss can make decisions when they may not have the authority to do so."

Bottomline: maybe the boss was handed the decision you disagree with from on high, maybe he also thinks it is dumb, but if his hands are tied, rubbing his nose in this will only make you an enemy.

Do not proceed unless you believe that what you disagree with is in fact the boss's own idea.

* Ask for permission to talk back, said career coach Kathi Elster,co-author of Mean Girls at Work (McGraw-Hill, 2012). She elaborated her two-step permission seeking approach: "1 - I have a strong opinion about ___. Are you open to listening? If not that's O.K. 2 - Is it O.K. to disagree? If not, I can go along with your plan."

* Avoid using the "you" word, as in, Here is why I disagree with you, urged management consultant Linda Galindo, author of The 85% Solution (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

Said Galindo: "It's subtle, but important, to avoid using the word 'you'. Saying 'I disagree with YOU' causes defenses to go up.'"

Instead say: "Here is why I don't agree."

What you are doing is avoiding creation of a 'you against the boss' division, and that is crucial, because when his back is against the wall, you know the boss will defend himself - which means smacking you. And you don't want that.

* Don't be derogatory, and do not speak down to your boss, said Steve Siebold, author of 177 Mental Toughness Secrets of The World Class (London House Press, 2010).

Yes, you know he or she is dumber than a post - but dwelling on it gets you nowhere.

Demean your boss, and the only loser will be you. That is guaranteed.

* Before confronting the boss, run your ideas by a trusted advisor, said Bill Rosenthal, CEO of communications training company Communispond. Rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse some more. Do the preparation, and you are much more likely to get a good hearing.

* Ask a lot of questions is more advice from Rosenthal. This is the old Socratic method. Instead of diving into a ruthless analysis of the failings of your boss's ideas, ask questions of him that are designed to lead him to that very conclusion.

Learn this technique, and it is guaranteed to take you safely and far in corporate sparring contests, because you never point to another's failings; instead you lead them into seeing them themselves in vivid technicolor.

* Use data, said Jonty Yamisha, principal at the consulting firm Kabardian Group. "Try to back up what you say with an objective metric or set of data points," Yamisha said. "Without data, your discussion can quickly devolve into a 'you vs. me'"


You cannot win an emotion-laden confrontation with your boss - but when the facts are solidly behind you, you very much are in a position to triumph.

* Don't pile on - and keep monitoring the boss's reaction is advice from Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (McGraw-Hill, 2011). "If your boss becomes defensive, pause for a moment and check in. Reassure your boss of your positive intentions and allow him or her to express any concerns he or she has."

In these confrontations there's a tendency to get wound up and to march through your script, from A to Z, without tuning into the audience's reaction. Avoid that, because you may have lost the boss at 'Go,' and every additional word you utter is just another nail in your own coffin. Stay present, stay flexible.

Will following all the steps let you change your boss's mind? There is no guarantee of that. But follow the ten steps, and odds are high you will definitely emerge unscathed - and you'll live to fight more rounds.

--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

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