Telling your boss that they're wrong is never easy. Most employees won't consider it, fearing professional suicide. I disagree. Not being able to face issues, speak truth, and learn has dire consequences. Wrong is a part of life, a part of business, and (most importantly) the key to improvement.
However, bosses are bosses. They don't typically get to that level because they have bad ideas. However, they're also human. Every single one of us is flawed, and realizing you are wrong never feels good. You know what's worse? Not realizing you're wrong for a long time, or to the point that you harm your company or your employees.
That's why the most successful CEO's actively seek out staff who'll stick their necks out and have hard conversations. Leaders need staff willing to raise concerns, provide constructive criticism, or just plain kick us in the pants when we're dead wrong. You can use different words -- mistaken, misguided, incorrect. But if you want your company to thrive, the message needs to land.
Delivering the message is always tricky. It's important to deliver criticism in a way that will be heard, understood, and appreciated.
I spent the majority of my career as a management consultant and agency professional. Companies paid me to find mistakes. There was an implicit expectation that I would quickly identify gaps and flaws, and lay out a clear plan for what needed to change. When you are an outsider, paid at a high rate to drive change, you don't have to be delicate. You get to just state the facts, lay the truth bare, and you never worry about hurt feelings. CEOs who hire change agents know what they're getting.
That's not true for employees. The tough conversation with the boss stays as long as you do. It becomes part of your relationship -- for better or for worse. Done well, it can build a strong bond between the two of you.
The good news about bad news is that bosses are just people. The communication tools that you use in other parts of your life to build strong relationships -- with partners, kids, friends -- all apply. The key is to focus on being human above being right.
Here's five tools I have used to tell bosses they are wrong the right way:
1. Accentuate the positive
This is not as simple as describing things that are going right, then delivering bad news, and finishing with a positive spin. This "sandwich" approach is a cowardly and patronizing way of delivering bad news. Executives are more likely to want clear feedback in order to improve. However, focusing solely on the bad risks that you are perceived as overly negative, or lack a clear view of the situation. The positives, as well as the negatives, provide the complete picture. A balanced, constructive view does not focus on "what's right and what's wrong," but instead tells us "what to do more of, what to stop doing, and what to do differently."
2. Use "I" statements
"You shouldn't have hired Joe." That is the opposite of an "I" statement and, they are likely to put your boss on the defensive. "I feel that our employees are afraid to speak for fear of being criticized." These "I" statements offer your perspective. There are different versions of the truth, and "I" statements leave room for discussion, interpretation, and alignment.
3. Focus on common ground
You and your boss are working together to succeed. When addressing a problem, remind your boss of the goals with a particular action or decision. Ground your discussion in shared objectives, and always make your case with good data. A boss will be more likely to hear feedback from someone who makes a solid argument rooted in the common good.
4. Ask questions
Bosses usually know more than you do. Before you point out problems, make sure you are likely right. Seek to understand the total situation. How do they perceive things are working? Are they happy with the result? How sure are they about the decision or action you are questioning? Opening a dialogue and asking useful questions may help bosses see that they are wrong before you even need to say it. If and when you do decide to deliver bad news, leave room for discussion; "Am I wrong on this?" You will not only get more information and, by offering to be wrong, it lessens the sting of negative feedback.
5. Offer solutions
If you have an opinion, you have a responsibility. Even if the boss was solely responsible for a bad decision, everyone must help the company address the issue and move forward.
If you approach the situation well, a great boss will thank you for your commitment and candor. Your company will have a better chance of success, and you and your boss will grow from the experience. If you're punished instead, it's time to ask yourself if whether that boss is worth your time and energy.