Mistakes and Strategies for Confronting Your Boss

A Study on Swaying Your Boss

It’s never easy to confront your boss, but sometimes it’s necessary—when you’re convinced a crucial decision has been made incorrectly, for instance. The key to effecting the change you seek lies in how you prepare yourself for the discussion, says corporate psychologist Elizabeth Gibson, a senior consultant with RHR International.

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A common mistake people make when confronting their superiors is to engage in a kind of pregame ritual. They pump themselves up to do battle. "That’s not a good idea," says Gibson. "People get up a head of steam. They don’t like confrontation, so in order to go in and challenge their boss, they have to get really riled up."

This tendency inevitably leads to the "you" scenario. "They go in and say, ’You throw everything off track when you do this.’ It’s blaming and pushing the responsibility on [the boss], and that raises defenses," Gibson says. And when defenses go up, the window for constructive communication closes.

Gibson, who oversaw an epic change management project at Best Buy and cowrote a recent book on the subject, Big Change at Best Buy, recommends a three-step process to avoid the "you" scenario. Step one is self-assessment; determine how angry you are and purge yourself of those destructive emotions. "You can always talk into a tape recorder and play it back," she suggests. Step two: Ask yourself what you really want. "If I could wave my magic wand and get exactly what I wanted out of this meeting, what would it be?" Gibson says. This exercise helps to clarify your goals.

The final step is to place yourself in the boss’s shoes. Different individuals have different motivations; some aim for status and recognition, while others value a reputation for expertise or frankness. Think about how you can cater to your boss’s motivations to accomplish your goals and those of the organization.

Now it comes time to go toe-to-toe. The keys to a productive exchange are patience and coolheadedness. "Listen more than you talk, ask for the [boss’s] point of view, and [demonstrate] active listening skills by clarifying and confirming," Gibson advises. "It’s much more of a dialogue."

More important than any of these steps, however, is your mind-set: You have to be open to change. "You can’t delegate change, and you can’t be exempt from it," Gibson says. "It won’t work if you believe that." Much like any relationship, in order to prompt a change in someone else, you must be prepared to change yourself.

Now keep the confrontation clean and no hitting below the belt.

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