How to Confront The Boss and Win
by Nancy Rathbun Scott
Consultant Dan Oestreich says 90 percent of workers are afraid to confront the boss. Getting fired isn't the biggest concern. Instead people worry about being labeled troublemakers, being perceived as not being team players, suffering salary loss or career derailment or damaging future relations with the boss.
That's too bad, for quality is impossible without the trust that comes from willingness to bring bad news. "Being a messenger is a value-driven role. The good of the organization and the integrity of the person are at stake," Oestrich says.
To make confrontation easier, he suggests some simple interpersonal communication tactics.
Break the cycle of mistrust
American business culture perpetuates the cycle of mistrust, says Oestreich. "Supervisors assume employees will test the rules. Employees assume supervisors are unfair or don't understand. The goal is to halt the cycle."
In helping organizations overcome mistrust, employees and managers alike must freeze negative assumptions about one another. "Invite feedback. Help others air their concerns and complaints. Foster critical thinking and respect for one another's talents and contributions. Create a neutral, problem-solving environment in which people can openly consider controversial issues and perceptions."
Prepare for frank discussions
When it comes time for that dreaded talk with the boss, it helps if-all along-you've shared both good and bad news freely. If not, you can still initiate a successful confrontation. The secret is to prepare as thoughtfully as you would for any important presentation. "In advance, write the script of exactly what you will say and imagine the response."
It's also important to act quickly, Oestreich says. "People don't like surprises, so don't let problems with your boss grow."
When the moment arrives, keep these tactics in mind.
  • Assume that your boss really wants to know what you have to say. You may begin by saying, "I think what you expect me to do in this role is stir the pot."
  • Be prepared to challenge negative perceptions. Say, "I don't want you to see me as a troublemaker or not a team player.'"
  • Own the feedback by using the first person. For example, say, "I've got a sticky issue to share with you" or "I've observed something I'm not comfortable with."
  • Clarify your motives. Say, "I'm here because I believe in our team and our organization."
  • Link the problem to business impacts: customer satisfaction, the ability to meet schedules, budgets, efficiency, competitiveness.
  • Be upfront and fearless. "If it's bad, say it's bad. Don't call it half-bad."
  • Don't flood your boss with negative information. Instead, brainstorm solutions. You may say, for instance, "My impression is that you aren't very supportive of the communications function. Here are two things you can do: Write an article for the newsletter and attend communications committee meetings."
  • Ask your boss to consider what you've said, but don't force an immediate response.
  • State your willingness to examine your own role in the problem and offer to help.
  • End graciously, expressing appreciation for the chance to share your observations.
Cope or cop out
No matter how careful your groundwork, you may be burdened with a problem boss. If he or she blows up, remain calm, reiterate the problem and ask for civil treatment.
If you get no response, keep feeding back. Suggest small doable steps that don't take a lot of energy.
Finally, if your boss is vindictive, expect no magic cures. Says Oestreich. "Don't put up with abusive behavior. You must make a personal decision to leave or to cope. If you decide to stay, only you know whether you can accept the messenger's fate."
Contact Daniel K. Oestreich, president, at Oestreich Associates, 18411 NE 26th Way, Redmond, WA 98052; 206/881-6336.
Nancy Rathbun Scott is a business writer living in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached at Visit for more information.

@2004 Nancy Scott