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20 tips for being a corporate diplomat

February 3, 2014
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Essentially all managers know the likelihood of going to jail for safety violations is practically zero.  So what can you do to be more persuasive and convincing when it comes to disagreeing with superiors about safety, health and environmental issues?

Recently, my friend and colleague, Dan Rockwell, offered 20 things to do when your boss is wrong and you think you are right.1 Dan first suggests employees are obliged speak up when they disagree. This is easier said than done, given the economy.  Fortunately, Dan provides approaches for employees to think about before embarking on the path of disagreeing with their boss.

Make the boss feel understood – Try to avoid learning your boss’s position while making your pitch; learn it ahead of time. Slow down and ask questions. Don’t assume your boss is an immovable object.  She or he has climbed the executive ranks engaging in and settling many disagreements.

Is the disagreement worth fighting for? Has the issued matured enough to take on the boss; is the timing right? Or are you preparing to charge into a non-recoverable career crisis?

Don’t give in if you’re convinced – Be sure your beliefs are fortified by the facts and nothing but the facts.

Advocate with courage and courtesy –Deliver your opposing view in a courteous manner.  Respect your boss’s point of view. Understand the differences between your and his/her point of views.

Engage your boss in private – Never, ever humiliate your boss in public — even if it is the last confrontation you plan before leaving the company.  The EHS world is small and news travels fast, especially public confrontations.  Pick the time of day, preferably early to mid-morning, as I have written about in the past.2

Explain your intentions and desired results – Focus on where you and your boss can end up with a win.  Avoid surprising your boss.  Be sure he/she understands your agenda.

Probe your boss’s needs – What your boss may need can be quite allusive, so probe with questions.  As Stephen Covey’s Habit 5 of highly effective people states, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” 

Get the facts – Stick to the facts when confronting your boss.  Your opinion is always up for debate, but facts are facts, especially if backed by empirical data. Word of caution: you probably don’t possess all the facts your boss is privy to, and don’t expect your boss to share all he or she knows.

Test assumptions –You probably have assumptions about how the meeting will go. Test these with your colleagues ahead of time. In your conversation with your boss, his or her take on your assumptions may not align with yours.  Adjust your position if no headway is being made during the conversation.

Search for options – Choice is good.  If options can play a role in resolving your disagreement with your boss, present them.

Embrace the big picture – What are the unintended consequences that might occur after a decision has been made? What are the contributing factors to your disagreement? How will the outcome affect the EHS system of the organization?

Include others in the conversation, but don’t make anyone look foolish – There is nothing wrong with conversing with others before and after your conversation with your boss.  Be candid and honest.  Don’t be surprised if one of these conversations convinces you to ultimately not have that difficult conversation with your boss.

Don’t use the past as an argument – Your position should be based on the future, not the past. Don’t draw out history lessons.  And remember, “This is the way we have always done it” is often what has precipitated the predicament with your boss. 

Employ forward focused language – Another “Coveyism:” “Begin with the end in mind.” Talk about where you want to go and how you want to get there, not where you have been.

Check your alignment –  Do a budget reality check. What can your organization financially tolerate?  Always account for the current business climate before pushing a new idea.

Connect with goals and strategy – Study your organization’s mission, vision, and values. Your boss’s attention is probably more on business goals and strategies than the disagreements you and he/she may be having.  Your disagreement may be nothing more than an annoyance to him/her at the time. Don’t take it personally; your issue just isn’t that important.

Acknowledge you could be wrong – There are times when admitting you’re wrong gets you closer to your ultimate goal than having a “knife fight” with your boss over a disagreement.  Think about your position in a systemic fashion and recognize that you may not have been right in all aspects of your position.

Focus on issues [facts], not personalities – Don’t fall prey to the belief that your boss cannot sense your position is partially or totally driven by your dislike of her or his personality, as opposed to the facts of the disagreement at hand.

Stay loyal and keep trying or leave – A good boss will value your loyalty to your position and to the organization.  He/she will seek to understand you in order to support your position, even if it cannot be acted upon near-term.  If you discover your loyalty to your position or, worse yet, to the organization has fallen apart, it could be time to update your résumé and seek employment elsewhere.

When overruled, grab an oar and row for all your worth – Dan points out and I wholeheartedly agree:  “Your response when you don’t get what you want says more about your character than pouting about not getting your way.”  Bosses stay close to team players they can count on.

One addition to Dan’s list: make sure your boss is not blindsided, especially among his or her peers or in front of his or her boss.  On occasion you will have to tell your boss something on which he or she will disagree with you.  Tell your boss upfront one of your responsibilities is to keep her or him informed of good and bad news so they are not ambushed in a meeting with their bosses.


1  Rockwell, D. Nov. 30, 2013. 20 Things to do When the Boss is Wrong. Leadership Freak Blog at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/20-things-to-do-when-the-boss-is-wrong/

2  Leemann, J.E. “Decisions wear us down – Make your presentations early in the morning.” In ISHN. November 2012.

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