Your boss is busy. So are you—but that doesn’t exactly put you on an equal footing. The two of you may have a strong working relationship where you ask each other for feedback, and the power dynamic is just about imperceptible. And that’s great! But it’s there, even if it’s hard to see, and you shouldn’t forget it.
So even though the traditional rules of office politics might not apply, there are still times when your manager really doesn’t need or want your input. The only problem is they might not actually tell you, “You know what? I’ve got this,” until you’ve already overstepped. Here are a few pointers on what it takes to walk the line between letting your boss make the tough calls she’s paid to make, and speaking up when you think you have something to add, but aren’t sure if it’ll be welcomed.
Related: The Better Way To Break Bad News
1. When Your Boss’s Mind Is Made Up
When your boss announces in a meeting, “I’ve made a decision. We won’t be able to put your project in next year’s budget,” it’s probably time to let go. Listen for the phrasing: “We won’t be able to” is more definitive than, “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to”; “I’ve made a decision” isn’t, “The more I think about it, I’m leaning towards . . .” Hearing this, you’ll likely feel upset, angry, and ready to take a stand and make your case. But the window has closed. It’s probably better to accept defeat, especially if the news arrives in a group setting where mounting a challenge might embarrass your boss and make you look bad.
How to get a word in anyway. Even if your boss’s mind is made up, that doesn’t mean it’s completely worthless for you to voice misgivings. You just need to be careful when and how. If you follow up in a one-on-one meeting, you might say, “I accept your decision, can you share your thinking?” If she sounds tentative in her explanation or open to your view, you may still have an in—a chance to collaborate on a better approach, possibly a compromise that includes some of your original idea.
2. When You’re Surrounded By Experts
Your boss doesn’t want you to be a know-it-all who speaks up just to curry favor and impress the room. So if you’re in a group setting with people who know more than you (and possibly more than your boss) about a certain topic under discussion, hang back and let them talk. Your silence might even be taken as wisdom and humility—never a bad thing.
How to get a word in anyway. Being reticent doesn’t mean you have to sit through a whole meeting in perfect silence. Speak up to ask a question, draw a quieter team member out, or synthesize some of the views you’ve heard. You will be projecting one of the most coveted leadership skills: the ability to pull together a discussion and get participants on sidelines involved. Your boss might even admire you for taking on this role. At any rate, it’ll probably reflect better on you than trying to pose as a subject-matter specialist—and will open up some room for you to squeeze in your opinions more tactfully.
3. When You Feel Negatively About Something Your Boss Doesn’t
No matter how good your working relationship, you can’t expect your boss to welcome your negativity. We all have issues that bring out the contrarian in us. We might dislike a team member, get frustrated with a customer, gripe about another department, or feel sorry for ourselves. And while it’s normal to want to vent, it’s not your boss’s job to listen to your complaints (it’s not your coworkers’ either, by the way).
That’s especially true if you encroach on a conversation your boss is in the middle of, only to interject with a bunch of negatives. If she’s talking with an account manager about a client, and you pass by remarking, “That client doesn’t know what they want!” you’re not being helpful. Negativity drags everyone down, especially the people in organizations who are responsible for keeping things running smoothly.
How to get a word in anyway. If you see a problem, have a suggestion for fixing it, and it’s a situation that affects you or your boss, speak up! But do it one-on-one. Take your boss aside and outline the problem and solution, emphasizing the latter. “I have something I’d like to share with you,” you might say. “Do you have a minute?” Then continue, “There’s an issue with . . . ” Don’t say “problem,” and don’t blame anyone or any group. Just focus on the matter in question and how you’d suggest fixing it.
4. When It’s Too Late To Make A Change
Speaking truth to power isn’t always a bad thing—sometimes it’s even necessary. But in most workplaces, sensitivity to office politics is a useful skill to have, particularly when it comes to timing. So if you say to your boss just before she launches into a presentation, “I think it’s crazy to have 90 slides in your deck,” it won’t go over well. Nor will a softer version of that, like, “Looks you’ve got too many slides.” Keep criticism to yourself when it’s too late in the game for your boss (or anyone) to take it into account.
How to get a word in anyway. There are times, though, when executives don’t want you to rubber-stamp their views or tacitly accept them. Sometimes they need your honest opinions—just delivered in time, and preferably not at the end of a sledgehammer. They may not come out and say, “I wonder if I have too many slides,” or “What do you think of our new design?”
But your boss might mention, “I’m skipping this afternoon’s meeting so I can put together that presentation”—which is your cue to offer, “No problem. Hey, I’d be glad to eyeball your slide deck before you finalize it, if that’s helpful.” If your boss agrees and offers you a chance to give it a look, make sure you kick off your feedback with something positive first, then share your constructive criticism with a phrase like, “I might suggest . . . ” or, “one thing that may work here . . . ”
It isn’t always clear when to speak up and when to bite your tongue around the workplace. It’s an important skill to master, but if you’re not sure where to start, there’s actually an easier skill you can practice to get you there—it’s called listening.