Bosses often have a way of appearing to be infallible. In fact, it is easier for them to be right, or appear to be right, than it is for those whom they supervise. Bosses have access to more data and resources. They have more control over circumstances. Moreover, we tend to assume (often with a little nudging from them) that they are always right. Still, bosses do make mistakes.
Career Tip: Help the boss deal with his mistakes
A primary responsibility of subordinates is to help their bosses to avoid making mistakes and to help correct errors once they are committed.
Some bosses want to blame others. They are like the humorist James Thurber, who made a mistake in placing a telephone call and then demanded of the person who answered and told him he had the wrong number, "Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?"
It is not easy to tell the boss he is wrong, nor is it without risks. Even under the best of circumstance, most bosses don't relish hearing that message. But then who does? Nevertheless, the bosses (and subordinates) who are going to be successful don't shoot the messenger. They grit their teeth, hear the truth and take corrective action.
Career Tip: Put off action that will lead to mistakes
Sometimes, it is best to avoid a supervisor making a mistake by not carrying out an order or by procrastinating until the situation cools down. This is particularly effective if your boss is given to temper fits during which he acts rashly.
In a rage, President Kennedy ordered the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission to punish the NBC television network, through whatever means possible, for a news report it had broadcast. The FCC chief sat on the order and did nothing for several days. He then told Mr. Kennedy that he had not followed his orders, making the point that the chief executive was fortunate to have people working for him who were too loyal to carry out every order posthaste. By then the President had cooled down and agreed with the tactic.
In one of his books, President Nixon wrote of how he was frustrated because his aides declined to carry out his orders. On the other hand, those staff members say they were protecting him from making mistakes.
It is a matter of history that the president and the country would have been spared a great deal of trauma if those aides had ignored his orders that resulted in the Watergate scandal.
Career Tip: Not all mistakes are worth correcting
Before telling the boss he is wrong, be sure the mistake is worth the effort. Some mistakes made don't make any material difference. They are just pains in the backside. But if the problem is material, bite the bullet and speak up.
Career Tip: Success is in delivering the message
Of course, a great deal depends on how the message is delivered. Obviously, it is not wise to declare, "Boss, you are wrong." Never discuss the supervisor's mistakes with those who are not involved in making the correction.
When you have to point out an error, make the message as impersonal as possible. Do not point fingers or become accusatory. Be sure you have the facts to support your case and stick to them.
Wrap the message in diplomatic language:
-- "Have you noticed that ...?"
-- "What would happen if we took another approach?"
-- "I am not being critical but ..."
-- "I know you would want me to tell you about ..."
Offer to help. Always have a suggestion for corrective action or a better way to do something so the mistake will not be repeated.
Take your fair share, and more, of the responsibility if you have had a role in creating the error.
Remember, this is not a game of "gotcha" in which you see how many times you catch the boss in a mistake. Don't keep score. Your trip on the career path will be smoother and more rewarding when you follow these career tips.
To get common sense advice on how to achieve your career goals subscribe to Ramon Greenwood's free semi-monthly newsletter and blog. Go to Common Sense At Work Blog. His take-it-to-the bank advice comes from a world of experience, including serving as Senior Vice President of American Express, an entrepreneur, professional director, career coach, and author.
© 2011 Ramon Greenwood
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