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.


Leadership Coach