Confronting the Boss: New Rules of the Road



Is honesty really the best policy when it means complaining to your boss?

As official probes into actions by Goldman Sachs and other major banks zero in on decisions and processes at all levels of an organization, finance professionals need to think harder than ever about when and how to speak up if something is bothering them.

The rules of the game have changed, observes Alan Kearns, founder of Toronto-based coaching firm Career Joy, whose clients include many investment bankers and financial planners. “The most problematic areas now are not technical issues but moral or ethical choices,” Kearns says.

Many managers will heed minor criticisms if you approach them tactfully and thoughtfully. They may even thank you for it.

On the other hand, serious questions involving possible violations of company policy call for finesse. When a concern touches on ethics or other big issues, before saying anything, carefully consider the setting and manner in which you will speak, and most of all, whether there’s a pre-existing reservoir of good will between you and the boss.

Nancy MacCready-Williams, now president and chief executive at the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia, was grateful when a subordinate clued her in about a leadership faux pas she’d made soon after joining the workers compensation insurer. By asserting her own opinions early and passionately while leading a staff meeting, MacCready-Williams had inadvertently intimidated her team and “shut down the room,” she told Canada’s Globe and Mail.

Not everyone is as courageous as MacCready-Williams’ charge, of course. Some 44 percent of respondents to a recent Globe and Mail online poll said they don’t feel free to tell bosses what’s on their minds.

Raising a Policy Concern

What if the issue is more serious – if, say, a boss seems to be overshooting the firm’s latest risk guidelines?

Here, Kearns says, nothing is more important than your relationship with your superior. If you trust the boss, you can casually bring the issue to his attention on an “off-the-record” basis. Rather than schedule a meeting with your boss in the boardroom, where the formality may put him on edge, consider talking at a casual, off-site location.

“Lines may have become blurred,” says Kearns, who recommends that employees be sure they’re seeing “the entire picture” instead of assuming they know it all. On the other hand, if the relationship is combative, you may want to start creating a paper trail to document what’s going on.

In the current career environment, Kearns says your ability to deal with change by “reading people” will be key to managing your career.

Don’t Put Boss or Colleagues on the Spot

Tact is still needed even in less serious situations such as proposing a change in a procedure. “It’s good to be up-front, but be diplomatic and show how the business would benefit from a change in approach,” says Mike Gooley, metro market manager for professional placement firm Robert Half International in Toronto.

“Your speaking up could help the firm prevent problems and improve its processes or other practices,” Gooley notes. Nevertheless, “When bringing up a complaint or disagreement, avoid putting your boss and colleagues in a potentially embarrassing situation. For example, request a one-on-one meeting and explain the situation and how you feel it is negatively impacting the organization or individual relationships. Be confident in yourself but also invite a dialogue and be open to the manager’s feedback.”

Clearly, employees can help their superiors see themselves as others see them. Knowing how she’s perceived by subordinates can help a leader perform better, according to John Baldoni, a leadership consultant and author of Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up. But if you already know your boss is unreceptive to feedback and is likely to react negatively, then it’s better to say nothing.

When a nagging problem persists, Gooley says you may need to consult your human resources or legal department.