Enterprise Software

How to "push back" when the boss is wrong


What can - or should - you do when your boss is short sighted and directing you to do something you know is wrong?

Everyone has a boss. Even the company chairman reports to a board of directors and isn't entirely free to do what (s)he pleases - just ask Carley Fiorina of HP fame.

Imagine this:

You are in charge of maintaining the country's infrastructure - our highways, bridges, and connectors. You have numerous reports over the past 20 years showing that our system is in dire need of upgrades and repairs. It's clear to you that if something isn't done, a catastrophe may occur. But at every annual budget meeting, the boss tells you something like, "Next year we'll get to that. All our capex is called for this year."

However, you can see that all the money is going to high visibility glamour projects which will give the boss better "press" or make constituents feel that their needs are being looked after. While those things may be nice-to-have; they aren't need-to-haves.

Should you push back? Or wait for a bridge to collapse in Minnesota?

I had this discussion with a client of mine. A senior exec for a large telecom company, he was repeatedly being told each year that his facilities infrastructure upgrade and maintenance requests couldn't be filled. At the same time, he watched other execs get gobs of capital for high-profile projects that would make the company leaders feel good - but little beyond that.

Although people's lives weren't at stake like the situation considered above; he was getting pinged every time the facility's air conditioning or power went down. It had become a source of genuine stress for him because he'd always had good performance reviews in his career. He now felt, quite simply, that it was wrong to fail to invest in infrastructure before vanity projects.

Many people face the same issue in their jobs. So, how can they "push back"?

1. Put yourself in the boss' shoes. Realize that the boss may not see his priorities as vanity projects. He or she may believe that they are valuable for the long-term growth of the company. If so, trying to argue the merits of your needs based on the lack of merit for those needs can be counterproductive. Repeating behavior which has resulted in failure over and over, and hoping for success this time, is a definition of insanity. 2. Death by duck bites. In many situations those smaller requests on a budget line will get a fast review and then be OK'd because the amounts seem rather inconsequential overall. So, rather than deciding that it's an all-or-nothing budget decision which you will put a stake in the ground over, look for small wins repeatedly. Win your war with a series of wins of small battles. 3. The smartest people are often the least successful. Politicians know this very well: When everyone thinks an idea is wrong (even though the politician knows it's right), there's no sense wasting energy trying to "educate" the people to get them to see it properly. So, for you, it's better to figure out a way to make your needs a part of what the boss thinks are most important. If he sees that his goals will be facilitated with the accomplishment of your goals, he's more likely to come around. 4. The boomers were right - it's good to do business over golf. (Or at a bar. Or while having a pedicure.) I am often amazed at how successful this can be. Re-engaging in a past dialog while in a different environment often results in a positive outcome after many failures. How responsive a boss will be to an idea is often directly proportional to how she is feeling at the time. 5. Mother Deafness. Psychologists tell us that new moms can become so accustomed to a crying baby that after a while they don't even hear the crying any more. They tune it out to reduce stress. Same thing happens on the job. If the boss regards you as someone who's always ragging about the same issues, she's going to stop listening. She may be there physically, looking like she's engaged; but she's already tuned you out. Figure out a new way to get the message across without looking like a broken record. 6. Recruit uninvolved lobbyists. Ask one or two colleagues to take the message upstairs for you on your behalf. If they bring it up and seem to have no vested interest in the outcome, it may be seen more persuasively.

john

Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

30 comments
sghanem
sghanem

Great topic .. 100% real "The smartest people are often the least successful" But solutions or pushing back doesnt always work :)

Old Man on the Mountain
Old Man on the Mountain

I've had what you described happen quite often. It is nearly impossible to convince these type of managers that you know "this" will be a foolish initiative or "that" is needed to prevent disaster. In my last situation I left the firm, recognizing that their folly was impenetrable. I tried respectfully to lay out the risks to them and then walk away, thinking my responsibility was fulfilled. But I was still blamed in the end analysis and/or had to pick up the pieces, which usually meant urgent action and included overtime. When you can't escape the consequences of their decisions, the wise thing to do is move on for your own peace of mind.

cats
cats

All very high level answers - would be extremely useful if the 'how to's' were backed up with some real life or specific examples.

engrumoh
engrumoh

Sounds very pragmatic. Worth exploring!!

jwiley
jwiley

Too manipulative and not helpful ... Far better would be to first consider what is the "goal." Then follow up with an objective review of the current condition. A clean understaning of the gap between the goal and the current reality will then point the way to the most productive alternatives.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

This is always a balancing act. What I see as important isn't always what my boss (or others) see as important. So you need to voice your opinions but maybe tone it down when you realize all you're acheiving is p1ss1ng people off. 1. "Repeating behavior which has resulted in failure over and over, and hoping for success this time, is a definition of insanity." Agreed but to me this is a balancing act. You need to push enough that your opinion is on record so that later when the fecal matter hits the rotary impeller blades your boss can't say, "You never said that." If you push too much you may lose your job, which may or may not be the right course of action. The other choice is table it for now. Don't give up but wait and bring it up at a better time. 6. Recruit uninvolved lobbyists. Be careful about this. If your boss realizes what your doing it can backfire.

Absolutely
Absolutely

"Should you push back? Or wait for a bridge to collapse in Minnesota? I had this discussion with a client of mine. A senior exec for a large telecom company, he was repeatedly being told each year that his facilities infrastructure upgrade and maintenance requests couldn't be filled. At the same time, he watched other execs get gobs of capital for high profile projects that would make the company leaders feel good - but little beyond that. Although people's lives weren't at stake like the situation considered above; he was getting pinged every time the facility's air conditioning or power went down. It had become a source of genuine stress for him because he'd always had good performance reviews in his career. He now felt, quite simply, that it was wrong to fail to invest in infrastructure before vanity projects. Many people face the same issue in their jobs. So, how can they 'push back'?" I don't ask myself 'how can I push back,' if I think my 'superiors' are not listening to reason, I ask myself 'why should I push back' and how much effort should I put into it? It's too bad that more people at HP weren't more geographically mobile; that could have really accelerated and accentuated the degree of Fiorina's personal responsibility for her personal screw-ups. For crying out loud, the NSA gets in trouble for the same kind of thing and that's their frigging job; a lowly CEO should never expect to abuse that much power and get away with it as long as she did. When people are being [u]that[/u] stupid, I cut them some slack, which is to say that I extend them more rope, because I know they'll just hang themselves.

seanferd
seanferd

That is a good list of technique for dealing with a "deaf" boss. I wish I had thought of some of those in the past. One bit of leverage that I have found particularly effective, when possible, is: Work it so the boss thinks she or he thought of it. Then reinforce perceptions of the concept's importance.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Situation has rarely got better I'll admit, it's never got worse though... Life's way too short and you spend far too much of it at work to waste your efforts on muppets.

AlphaW
AlphaW

When management will not listen and it is affecting your mental health and personal life sometimes the only thing to do is walk away. Often you will be the scapegoat when things go badly even if it was their decision. There are always some people in management who have never worked in the IT field, but somehow believe IT is always hiding something or wasting money that they will uncover.

zbatia
zbatia

See what the goal is, first of all. I always try to represent the problem graphically. I just use the Visio to show where the problem is after doing some reaserch. In addition, it is helpful to bring some real life stories with similarities to that project. You just can't say "this will fail" or "this is wrong". Show the table or flowchart - it is always better accepted that verbally. Your picture will be memorized by your boss, and hopefully will force to re-think his/her position.

kingttx
kingttx

If you see a need and it's all too real (it's not a want or a wish, but a real need), knowing the most productive alternatives doesn't mean anything unless you can actually reach that goal/those goals. Hence, the need to get buy-in from the decision makers and, further, the frustration that comes along when those decision makers don't care or can't see beyond their own pork. Then you need to get into some kind of manipulation.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

The only reason to employ the technically gifted, is you need their technical gifts. If you pay them and then don't employ what they know you are an idiot or some lunatic philanthropist. Addendum, telling your boss it would be better if you upgraded the entire infra-structure so this toy would work, or switching platforms to one you think is 'better' is not employing your technical gifts, its being an arse.

jmorrison
jmorrison

This is not just an IT issue, but an issue that applies to most fields. Unless the situation is a matter of life and death(ex. a bridge in Minnesota), it has been my experience, that challenging your boss, is a battle best left not fought. Your boss needs to see the failure 1st hand, and be able to realize that they had a part in it. Then and maybe then, they will ask other people for their input, and actually listen to them. Most of the time this means you are in a Lose-Lose situation.

zbatia
zbatia

and therefore... I suggested to my wife 2 times to leave the jobs and to look for a better place. Now, after several months of frustrations with two employers and their crazy environment, she is working just across the street and enjoys the job (I am keeping my fingers crossed).

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

More worried about the consequences from me impacting theirs. :D

Absolutely
Absolutely

[i]Addendum, telling your boss it would be better if you upgraded the entire infra-structure so this toy would work, or switching platforms to one you think is 'better' is not employing your technical gifts, its being an arse.[/i] OK, true. Why did that come up?

EmergencyMan
EmergencyMan

I'm the continuity manager, I am always asking to build an emergency inventory, train, make a plan with a committee whose membership is not optional, etc. So the power goes out, we have no emergency inventory, training, or comprehensive plan. Guess who got the reprimand.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Or you are a boss trying to get us stroppy c***ts to leave you alone. Wait for your boss to admit they failed, bring seed and livestock, your packed lunch isn't going to cut it.

Mond0
Mond0

I'm currently in this situation. One of the owners had, in the past, said that the standard company email format would be Rich Text (to prevent embedded code vulnerabilities). Recently we upgraded all the workstations and when he overheard me telling another tech to configure Outlook for Rich Text he said that wasn't necessary. We discussed the problems with HTML, but he wouldn't hear it. Last week I took another shot at "educating" him with a clipping from the TechRepublic blog about [b][u][url=http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/wireless/?p=179]drive-by pharming[/url][/u][/b], but I have yet to hear back from him.

mmoran
mmoran

"Your boss needs to see the failure 1st hand..." As reliable a rule of thumb as ever was conceived, is this: "Nothing will happen until management feels your pain."

Absolutely
Absolutely

[i]That was a just in case ... Some business type stepped in to explain that there were some 'business' issues a propeller head wouldn't understand.[/i] And so in your previous post, this 'business type' is the one suggesting the frivolous work, or is that the 'propeller head?' [i]Addendum, telling your boss it would be better if you upgraded the entire infra-structure so this toy would work, or switching platforms to one you think is 'better' is not employing your technical gifts, it's being an arse.[/i] Who is 'pushing back' against a stupid idea in your scenario?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Some business type stepped in to explain that there were some 'business' issues a propeller head wouldn't understand. Seems to have been successful.

jmorrison
jmorrison

The fact that you are "The Fall Guy" is going to happen regardless of your actions. Taking the blame is already built into your job. Very few Owners or Bosses truly believe in your assessments, if your assessments conflict with their goals or theories. I am not saying this is a fact, it is just my opinion.

Absolutely
Absolutely

Send one hidden in html, and the other as an attachment to a rich text format version. That should illustrate your point. No, I did not intend to post the previous message twice, nor to post this one at all. TR just decided to remind me that I'm using http to do FTP's job. Excellent.

Absolutely
Absolutely

I bet that will get his attention.

zbatia
zbatia

My management spent $2.2m for an enterprise-level software that was so raw that EVERY function we tried to use has failed. When I tried to press the vendor using my expertise in several areas, I was taken from the project (they explained me: for a political reason). After all, the vendor's developer was sitting in the shop for about 8 months until it began to work because they realized that the disaster is unavoidable.

sbaroody
sbaroody

but they do deserve it. What about the pain of banging your own head agains the wall when you know you're waisting your time and their money on a project that isn't going to work. All the while, you're dreading that power point presentation on improving performance - as if you had any control in the first place.

fred.wagner
fred.wagner

The explosion of a space shuttle during launch a few years ago is a prime example of this - an engineer brought up the item, but management shut him out, it blew up, and NOW there is more attention paid. Sometimes lives are the price paid for Management's bad decisions. Perhaps bringing up the Bridge and the Shuttle examples will help the boss focus their attention on the gravity of your request. Some years back in a law firm, I warned Management that I might get another 6 months out of the main Netware server. I was ignored. a year later, it failed catastrophically, and they lost two days of billable activity. THEN I got to specify what I wanted, including enough equipment to run the firm even if a primary server failed. I got my request, and a well-cooled server room to boot. Sometimes words cannot make the point, events have to!