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Challenging your boss can be a minefield – but does it have to be? Try these techniques from Be Bulletproof.

As the US plans for a further military intervention in Iraq – this time on humanitarian grounds – many feel the current problems could have been avoided had Defence Secretary Rumsfeld been more willing to listen to those around him who had greater foresight. Many serving generals have since said that they regret not challenging Rumsfeld more forcefully when crucial decisions were being made. Rumsfeld was known for many things but being a good listener was hardly one of them. But how do you challenge your boss?

It helps to start with what not to do. Firstly, those management books that advise you that a feedback conversation with your boss is just like any other feedback conversation, are woefully misguided. Speaking truth to power may seem very noble, but it is rarely wise and there is very little payoff. (In mediaeval courts, the only people who could speak truth to power, without being beheaded, were the court jesters. So beheaded or jester? Not great options.) You are smart enough to choose a wiser strategy.

None of us are very good at changing our minds – especially bosses

The first thing to bear in mind is that none of us are very good at changing our minds. The mind has evolved to do many smart things but changing its opinion does not seem to be one of them, at least not readily and willingly. The problem is that changing our minds often runs counter to what psychologists call our ‘self concept’. Most of us, self-identify, with being smart. Accepting that we may have made the wrong call on something in the first place, doesn’t readily fit with this. Even when listening and changing one’s mind might ultimately be beneficial, the mind’s inner defence mechanism kicks in and tries to reassure us that we were right all along. When you are a boss, and the feedback that you may have made a wrong call, comes from more junior people, this problem is even greater. Remember that your boss’s self-concept is not just that he is smart, but that he is senior in the organisation because he is smarter than the crowd. Feeling challenged about this, is certainly going to jar.

In our book Be Bulletproof, How to achieve success in tough times at work, we advise people to think of their boss as a customer.

Don’t go for safety in numbers

It is tempting to go for safety in numbers to back up your point of view. This is rarely wise. When your boss hears phrases like, ‘I have been chatting with the rest of the guys, and everyone around here thinks…’ it is certainly going to press her insecurity buttons.

Keep your boss feeling safe

The key is to keep your boss feeling safe and give her the opportunity to change her mind in a way that still fits with her self-concept of being smart. This allows her to change her mind without inwardly losing face.

Make your advice consistent with your boss’s positive self-image

Firstly, position your advice in way that is consistent with the way she likes to see herself. People are more likely to act in a way that they see as being somehow consistent with their values. You might use phrases like, “I know you always like us to question the obvious assumptions, that’s why…” Or, “I know you like people to look for a fresh angle, and that’s why it might be at least worth considering…”

Make it about being open to take the first step

Give your boss the option of at least taking the first step. And associate, in her mind, the idea of the course of action you’re recommending, being the one that an open-minded person would take. “And so, would you be open to my just taking an initial look at how this might work…” Very few people will say ‘no’ to a request like that. And once your boss answers in the affirmative, that door at least starts to open. Remember, people tend to behave in a way that is consistent with their previous actions. If they take a first step that is consistent with your recommendation, further steps are likely to follow.

Introduce some new information

Remember that what prevents people from changing their mind is having to deal with the notion that they may have made the wrong call in the first place. Here is a great technique to let them off the hook. Introduce some new information to the situation. In other words, the call that they made in the first place was smart then, but things have changed.

“Appointing XYZ contractors was definitely the right call, given what we knew at the time. We could never have known that abc, was about to change, but now I guess you’ll want to review the situation. That’s why I started to look at…”

Stress the unusualness of the situation

Another very similar tactic that works on the same principle is to stress the unusualness of the situation. “Of course 99% of the time, the approach that we have been taking, would absolutely be the right one. However this is highly unusual situation, so it seems, it might just be worth keeping our minds open to…”

Come to your boss with the solution not the problem

It is well-worn advice but no less true for that. Don’t come to your boss with problems, come to your boss with solutions. You can come with a clear diagnosis of the problem, but if you simply leave it at that, you are going to ruin your bosses’ day, which is not a good situation. Come to your boss with a diagnosis and a recommended course of action, ideally that you can get your boss to feel some ownership of.

Make your boss the problem solver

Remember the key here is to make sure your boss feels safe and secure at all times. One way to do this is to position the boss as the problem solver.

“So it seems that the department, might just benefit from being open to the idea of…, and it occurred to me that you are in the best position to start that process happening.”

Use social proof

A further tip is to use what social psychologist call ‘social proof’. There is a reason, advertisers use phrases like, ‘four million owners can’t be wrong.’ We are influenced by other people. Better still, if you can draw on the example of someone whom your boss admires.

“I know Bob in Operations has been looking a lot into this idea.”

Be confident

Finally, body language that is submissive and subordinate will not enamour you to you boss, it will simply suggest that you are an easily vanquished opponent and your boss will act accordingly. Remember people buy confident people. Stand in a powerful pose, taking up as much space as possible before you go into see your boss. Think of something you really value in your life. Think of a recent achievement and re-run it in your mind.

Don’t be too concerned, if your boss does not appear to go with your recommendation straight away, or even to reject it, people often change their minds later in private.
For more about Threshold and Be Bulletproof


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