Q: What’s the best way to correct your boss when they make a mistake?
Dear Mr./Mrs. Right,
They say the customer is always right. But your boss? Not so much. However, calling out a supervisor when they’ve misspoken or got facts wrong can be a touchy subject.
The last thing you want to do is embarrass them, or come off as either being insubordinate or a know-it-all, which means the best approach for addressing a manager’s mistake is to take a light touch. Seven simple rules can help you do so if your boss isn’t big on feedback:
1. Do your research
Double-check your facts (noting that managers often have more up-to-date or comprehensive information at their disposal) to make sure that an error has actually been made before speaking up.
2. Pick your battles
Consider whether or not the correction is worth potentially crossing swords over. Ask yourself: Will it make your boss look foolish or out of touch? Will it prove costly to a client or the company? If it’s a minor gaffe—e.g. a small detail they’ve misquoted—perhaps it’s best to let it slide, or “coincidentally” pass a research report or infographic your manager’s way via email that “may be of potential interest.”
3. Consider your motive
Are you rocking the boat just to be a contrarian, or are you being overly nitpicky? Will bringing this matter to your supervisor’s attention really create positive change for your colleagues, clients, and the organization, or is it a superfluous gesture just to “set the facts straight?” If there’s no compelling reason to challenge your manager, don’t.
4. Time your comments wisely
Picking the right time to discuss matters with your boss is vital, especially if you require their full attention and anticipate having a difficult conversation. Avoid approaching superiors out of the blue, while they’re busy or preoccupied with other matters, or in the middle of group gatherings to maximize the chances of them having a better reaction to receipt of the information.
Of course, if a time-sensitive and critical problem stands to emerge as a result of their actions, it pays to be proactive. Urgent requests to connect might be made face-to-face, on the phone, or even via email (“Hi Don, would it be possible to get together today at 5 pm? I’ve got a time-sensitive matter to discuss.”)—but don’t ambush them at the office coffee pot.
5. Speak privately
Do not confront your boss in public in front of coworkers and clients, or in a public place where there’s the potential to be overheard, so as not to embarrass them. Instead, schedule time for a private chat and have a safe forum ready (i.e. a nearby closed-door meeting room) in which to hold the discussion.
6. Make helpful suggestions
Never tell bosses they’ve “made a mistake” or are “wrong,” and don’t make demands or attempt to give instructions. Instead, couch comments politely as helpful ideas, insights, and problem-solving suggestions that guide them to arrive at similar conclusions, and suggest like-minded ways for addressing areas of concern. Rather than simply point out mistakes, offer clever ideas for implementing corrections. Your goal should be to spark constructive dialogue around any topic.
7. Practice the art of acceptance
Bosses won’t always agree with you, and you won’t always be able to change their mind. If they decide it’s time to move on and end discussion of the topic, it’s time to gracefully accept their decision and move on. (If someone’s safety or wellbeing is genuinely at stake, however, it may be time to take up the discussion with someone else; hopefully your human resources department has guidelines or procedures for reporting and resolving these kinds of concerns.)
Whatever the outcome of your discussions, if your concerns were important enough that you chose to raise them with your boss, you may wish to document the fact that you’ve raised red flags, just in case future problems arise. But bosses are human, too: When politely approached with insights that they may have made a mistake, and given a graceful opportunity to correct it, they often will.
Do you have a workplace etiquette question? Submit it to Scott by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.