We’ve already discussed the difficulty of approaching your management with critical feedback (see Speaking Truth to Power, Parts I, II, III, and IV) even if you’re full of compassion for their difficult situation and have chosen the most propitious time, place, and circumstances possible.
But sometimes the situation is such that everyone else has stepped back a pace and, suddenly, there you are, forced to step forward and speak out.
It’s hard to choose the best opening to “wake someone up” to a reality that they appear not to recognize or alert them to specifics that aren’t terrible but could definitely be improved — if only they were willing to learn some new facts or accept some advice that might not be what they expect. And the “right way” is so amazingly individual — and bloody complicated. No wonder so many people hate dealing with anyone who has any kind of authority, power, or control over them! So here are some suggestions about approach and positioning:
- This can’t be about you! No matter what you’ve heard about making “I” statements and talking about what is important to you, this is probably not the time or place to focus on yourself. With many supervisors, managers, and even senior executives, once you talk about how you feel and what you want, their perception of your self-interest will cause a switch to flip in their heads. They won’t be listening by the time you get around to explaining why your point of view makes sense or why your recommendation will actually work better.
- What’s best for them? Ask yourself what will benefit your managers — or, if they take a broader perspective, what will benefit the department or the company. Do you know what their big goals are? Which principles are important to them? Don’t be in the position of violating any of those things — gear your remarks toward their being able to accomplish the things you know they want and need to.
- Be sure you’re there to help, not to punish or teach a lesson. You need to keep them open and firmly on your side — not thinking about how to defend themselves, attack you, or ease you out the door.
- Don’t ask if they’ve got a minute. You know you’re going to take longer than that, and mismanaging their expectations is never effective. You’re better off if they think that what you have to say is a bigger deal than you think it is, and then let them be relieved to find out that it’s actually something smaller, rather than creating the reverse situation.
Here are some openings that have worked with various kinds of people in very different settings. Keep in mind that there’s no magic incantation that works with everyone — and also make sure you still sound like a version of yourself. Memorizing a formula that’s out of character can make you feel more awkward and self-conscious. It’s generally best to begin with the individual’s name, and also use it from time to time during the conversation as a way to prompt them to refocus again.
- Please put on your seatbelt. There are a couple of things that I think it’s important to share with you/that I think you need to know.
- I don’t usually bring you this kind of information and it’s a little hard for me to tell you this, so please be patient while I’m explaining it.
- I know you’re concerned about/committed to/working on topic X, and I have some thoughts for you that are related to what you were asking (or that might give you a new perspective).
- Please help me give you what you’ve asked for by hearing me out.
- I have something to tell you, and I know that you’ll appreciate my telling you once you’ve heard about it. (Yes, this sounds a little dramatic and cryptic, but sometimes you just need a way to get started!)
- I need to consult with you because what you’re trying to accomplish is too crucial to allow the current situation to continue. (Insert more descriptive nouns as appropriate.)
- Please keep an open mind about this, because some new input might create just the impact you said you wanted. (Or: This new information might be a real wakeup call.)
Be prepared to follow up your opening with evidence and recommendations, not just your concerns, worries, or preferences.
Are there other openings that you’ve used successfully? Or any that have blown up on you? Perhaps we could tweak them.
Onward and upward,
More from this series:
- Speaking Truth to Power, Part I: Does the Leader Want to Know? Or Does the Leader Already Know?
- Speaking Truth to Power, Part II: Why It’s Best to Give Your Boss the Benefit of the Doubt
- Speaking Truth to Power, Part III: When and Where (Not) to Give Your Boss Feedback
- Speaking Truth to Power, Part IV: Are You a “Leader” Who Instills Powerlessness?
- Speaking Truth to Power, Part VI: If You Don’t Want a Better Relationship, Don’t Bother