How to Go Over the Boss?
Playing politics creates mediocre organizations filled with butt kissers and game players more interested in advancing their own career’s than in advancing their organization. I’ve seen the ants scurrying to tell the boss what the boss wants to hear. It’s selfish and cowardly.
If you’re convinced the boss is making a decision that isn’t in the best interest of the company, you owe it to your boss, your company, and yourself to go over the boss’ head.
- Understand the decision by asking questions based on the best interests of the company.
- Explain your concerns and options to the boss.
If the boss doesn’t change and you’re still concerned …
- Tell your boss you’re gathering more information from others within the organization. Look for many perspectives.
After gathering more information, if you’re still concerned…
- Explain your concerns and present alternatives to your boss.
- If the boss isn’t convinced and you’re still concerned, tell them you are going up the chain with your concerns.
- As long as you remain concerned, exhaust every channel explaining your concerns and exploring alternatives.
- Always act humbly and in the best interest of your organization.
- Always focus on decisions not persons.
- Always listen and explore other options.
- Always be open to the possibility you are wrong.
- Never compromise if you’re convinced you’re doing what’s best for your organization.
- If “the best” is ambiguous, you should never begin this path in the first place.
- Never go over the boss’s head because of preferences or unsupported opinions.
- Be prepared to lose your job.
- Always act humbly and in the best interest of your organization. (Yes I already said that)
Organizations need people of integrity.
When and how should people go over the boss’s head?
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Dan, great post and thanks for also having the integrity to bring the awareness that “Be prepared to lose your job”. I guess what most people fail to appreciate is that if you feel your boss is making decisions that do not act in the best interest of the company, staying and keeping quiet is equally as damaging to your career. So confronting the situation to seek resolve does put you in the line of fire, but you have a better chance of salvaging the situation with that approach than by burying your head in the sand. I think your advise is quite clear and sound, and if I may add “stick to the facts” to “Always focus on decisions not persons”. As daunting as it may seem, you have to confront the situation and if your boss is not big enough to see your perspective (particularly if it is shared by colleagues), then you have to go to someone else who will listen and is in a position to do something about it.
Thanks for your comment and for emphasizing important ideas.
As others are saying, it’s risky.
When I did this I actually requested a meeting with my boss and his boss, having gotten nowhere with my boss. The three of us met, I was heard, my boss got to be heard in the same conversation, and the CEO decided. He decided against me, and I wound up transferring to a different department in the same company, but I was attractive to my new boss because of the way I handled this issue with my old boss. It was pretty obvious to others at his level that his policy was helping only him, at the cost of other departments.
Great story. It shows both the pro and con of going over the boss’s head…which, I suppose technically you didn’t..
Oohhh ooohhh ooohh can I be the first to comment!
I think the warning should come fist and not be understated. BE PREPARED TO LOSE YOUR JOB!.
Dan I must say I think thisis a high risk strategy. I agree enitrely with ‘the attitude’ as you describe it at the end. The rest however I struggle with, and partly because on several occasions I’ve had to walk by pursuing this. I nearly always advise that the argument must be won at the first frontier (your boss), if it fails sure regroup, revise, reassemble and represent, but back to the same person (if they are still there!).
If this fails, ensure there is an adequate trail, and go find something else great to do (or start prpeapring to leave).
Unless you are in an open organisation with an open minded executive going around the boss is fraught with dangers, and is in itself playing politics.
I am far from conservative in my approach and always like to encourage constructive criticism, but I do not counsel that people step over the ‘boss’tacle’ even if they have garnered irrefutable evidence in favour of thier better idea.
And one of the reasons for this is you can never be 100% sure about the battles they are facing and the politics behind the solution they are putting forward – and may well not be at liberty to disclose.
Gee – I feel like an arch conservative- not like me at all.
Best regards, Richard
Thanks for your insights. I agree completely that this is a high risk activity. No doubt about it.
Your suggestion that a person may not know all the things the boss is facing is valid. It’s not unusual for someone not to know the whole picture. Hence, its important to remain open, listen, gather information from many quarters, be humble, and seek the organizations best interests.
Still risky perhaps dangerous is a better term.
In addition, one thing the high impact leaders I’ve talked with regularly say is they look for people that tell things like they see it. Jim Parker of South West Airlines really emphasized finding people with integrity who didn’t just play politics.
If you have to play politics to remain in an organization, it’s time to leave.
Love the term bosstacle. Well crafted.
Thanks again for your insights and cautions.
Appreciate your comments and your openess to challenge. Fantastic.
Intergity we absolutely agree on. The last time I did this (not so long ago!) I went to he Board Chairman, maintained my integrity, I walked a month later (no obvious action), and 12 months later they fired the CEO – In that case I had the integrity not the patience 🙂
From Jeremy Bromberg: Make that two votes for “well said.” This post – very uncharacteristically – had me squirming in my chair. Great intentions, a clear desire to do the right thing, but fraught, fraught I tell you, with squirmy risk.
(I thought it important to post it in the proper place because context impacts meaning and being under Lost in Space’s comment really mattered.)
So true. It had me squirming too! I can’t say it sits easy on my mind even now. However, I’ll stand behind it.
Of course I’m open to other steps, insights, and suggestions.
Very well said. thanks, AD
A former boss used a line that I always respected, “Question me about anything but my integrity”. Today, I find that when the word integrity is even spoken I picture him. He had it, he lived it. I still have the utmost respect for him. Your writing today reminded me. Thank you.
Great line DEbbie, took me a while to get it , but I do. Cheers Richard
Nothing is more infuriating than having your integrity questioned. At that point, the conversation is over. What’s the sense in continuing the conversation.
Great post! I will ALWAYS defend my position and gather more information (usually I’ve already researched, asked the opinions of others and have all “ammunition” ready to go in and “win” what I want. Everything I suggest is always in the best interest of the organization unless someone else can prove or show me otherwise. Nine times out of ten, I get what WE need as an organization. The tenth time? I get what I WANT. 🙂
Integrity is of the utmost importance to me. I have lost a job because of it, but I’d rather lose a job because I maintained my integrity than keep one where I’m living a lie.
Thanks for your affirmation and encouragement to have integrity.
I like something Harry Kraemer said, Stop trying to be right and focus on doing right things. I think his idea helps us rise above making things personal.
An interesting and thought provoking post as always and also as always interesting and thought provoking comment from your readers.
I very much like the “learning” Debbie has carried with her re: “Question me about anything but my integrity.” That principal I think goes to the heart of every relationship inside or outside of business.
Thanks for joining in. Agreed, love Debbie statement.
Joel DeLuca in “Political Savvy” provides tools and insight that can help a person take the proverbial highroad in political situations such as this, by choosing to be an ‘active and ethical player’ in the politics. The idea is to build a ‘strategic alliance,’ ‘a critical mass of support for an idea you care about.’ If you are unable to influence your boss, look to see if there is someone else you can influence who in turn does have influence with your boss. And if your boss’s superior(s) needs to be included in the alliance, the Political Savvy techniques will help you do that in a proper way, as will the excellent suggestions in this blog!
I am not familiar with Joel DeLuca’s work. Thank you very much for brining it up during this conversation.
My focus is not so much on how to effect the change as it is in how to effectively voice personal concerns that are based on objective information.
Love what you added.
Ive made it a practice to let my direct reports know if they are not satisfied with my performance or a decision I’ve made to discuss it with me. After speaking to me and not getting the result they would like, I encourage and support them going to my boss. The formula is known by their direct reports as well. Knowone has ever gone over my head yet but some have gone over their bosses head and have come to me.
A very useful and insightful post. Suggested measures are really classic ones and helpful to expose backstabbers and boot lickers. But what happens, people try to unsee what they see. They presume that nothing is going to change because it is very difficult to change the boss. They look for either ulternative or keep silenced. And that is the reason practices flourish because nobody questions that. It is also true that be ready to lose your job when you have determined to expose the practices. And that Fear of losing of job, allows people to keep shut and allow practices to grow.
I would like to share my experience. One of my students, asked me, what works in organisations ? Intelligence quotient or Emotional quotient?
His perspective was that every body say that intelligence works and not the emotion. My answer was : think from others perspective, and it is more sustainbale than thinking from self perspective. When organisations measures success in terms of numbers than ususally employees need to have intelligence to survive but on the other hand, when organisation measures success beyond numbers then emotion works.
Great reframe back Ajay! What are the measures and how long are we measuring.
I think a key point in this conversation is how your own reputation can suffer if your organization is doing something that should be corrected and you can be associated with it. In my company, since I execute my boss’s policies without editorial comment, I think most people assume I agree. If I don’t agree, the only way to handle it with inegrity is to challenge/change it. If my boss won’t see the light, I still have to face the fact that to everyone else I look complicit. So Dan’s course of action is high risk, but I’ve taken it in the past rather than seeming to be in support by my inaction.
You know its time to go over (or go over with) your boss when….
…you are waking up at 3 am perseverating about work.
…Tums becomes your mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack.
…you feel like the poster for Home Alone with your face squished.
…you look in the mirror and there waaay more grey hair. (okay maybe not that one)
To add on to the mix, might also want to think presentation, presentation, presentation with location, location, location. How and where you discuss this is vital.
Even the Columbo approach of just asking ‘one more question’ might be valid, however done has to be genuine without a future planned agenda. The location has to have a level of privacy as well, as you would with
Definitely have the squirm (eeep) factor and creativity rolling today Dan. Debbie’s quote is a nugget, would definitely want to work for that
guy! And Richard, aka LiS, et al, well, bosstacle is epic.
Glad you like bosstacle – i like too that it is the same letters – just an extra S in there and most of us could put that to use! Regarding the AKA – i have no idea why it pops up as Croadie one minute and LiS the next, perhaps i am lost (no answer required Doc).
Hey, I should have but didn’t know Lost in Space was you Croadie… If I had know I might not have been so nice! 😉 Best to you and your family. Dan
Dan, this is indeed a difficult situation for anyone in any situation. No doubt about it. Honestly, when I first read the title of the post, I thought it was a way to avoid the boss and go over their head. I was pleased to see most of the path is in spending time with the boss first. That’s good.
Interesting form of conflict management here. Not necessarily on a personal level but an organizational level. That makes it easier to remain unbiased and cool-headed (although there will always be emotion to be aware of – that requires Emotional Quotient (EQ), a great topic for you to tackle on your blog, btw. You’d do a great job I’m sure).
One thing I’d suggest initially is for organizational leaders reading this post to start now to instill a standard operating procedure to handle situations like these if they come up. It’s a lot better to document a “path” when the heat is NOT on.
Integrity. Fun to talk about, blog about, tweet about. But deal with it in the real world and it’s not so fun. Integrity takes guts. Not everyone can lead with it. But those who do are great leaders in my book. Be prepared to lose your job? You bet. Life’s not fair. That’s always been the case. Always will be. But would you rather be a leader with integrity making a change for the good or a leader with no integrity as you grit your teeth at your desk every day?
Trying to put myself in the “path” scenario, here are a few things that are top of mind:
* Always look for the best interest of the person(s) involved as well as the organization’s
* Remain humble and teachable (is there something the boss knows that you don’t?)
* Stick to the facts
* Attack the problem, not the person
* When there is no problem with the boss, behave in such a way as to earn the right to confront your boss, should the time ever come.
I like your interpretation of the post and comments on conflict management needing more of E.Q. while handling difficult bosses. Higher the hierarchy, greater is the difficulty of reaching a consensus. But, never ever compromise on your principles or values when in confrontation. Loosing a job can be a threat but should not make you impotent or force you to loose self-respect.
Always fight for injustice and live up to your own principles of living a satisfied life with self-respect and strong character.
It’s a great place to work when the culture makes non-integrity stand out like a sore thumb.
Thanks for adding a new dimension to the conversation. A system to handle “going over the boss’ head” solves so many problems.
I’ve found a real hypocrisy in some organizations where employees can go to the boss about other employees but if they go to the boss’ boss they are in trouble.
That is sad. May we each be striving for “level 5” leadership
“Always be open to the possibility you are wrong.”
I was looking for this one while I was reading your post. I agree with you on all the line, but being open to the chance *you* are actually the one being wrong, especially if you’re the only one concerned about your boss’ behavior, it’s something absolutely necessary.
I think it’s very clear if your concerns are going to cost your job or not, it’s easy to understand if your business is a dynamic one, open to suggestions and change, or a monolithic one, which will stay just the way it is, no matter how loud you complain.
There was one thing I was hoping to see in the comments, but I don’t think it’s there. I’m talking about assessing the integrity of organization you’re working for. Real world experience is telling that anyone below C-level is easily expendable to almost any organization. Therefore before opening yourself to a possibility to be “expended” prematurely, you should ask yourself if you are really want to go down that path for an organization that would think little of integrity when filing next batch of pink slips. Not saying you should give up and go with the flow. Just don’t expect everyone to be on the same page as you are.
Dan, I take a slightly different tack. Gabriele above seemed to get close to the point and several people have used the word “teachable” so I think generally we have the idea, but my general disagreement is in the approach.
Rather than confront, we must ask and continue to ask until we understand. “Boss, how is that beneficial to the org?” “Boss, how is that idea better than X?” “Boss, can you help me understand why your key benefit is more important than some major detriment?” Continue to try to determine what it is we don’t understand about the circumstance.
The assumption is that my boss is more suited for their job than I am. Therefore, I’m trying to understand what the reason for the decision is and how that reason is (or those reasons are) more important than the reasons I know to be against the decision.
Asking makes you a learner. It proves your humility and it proves you are teachable. You’re not challenging the organization’s leadership, you’re understanding it. And it’s not fake. You can always ask your boss if they mind if you ask other leaders in the organization. Asking to me is the best approach.
Asking also helps you because if you are wrong, you don’t look stupid.
Asking helps because if your boss is a person of integrity and they’re wrong, they can change without having to back down.
And asking has a fourth benefit. If your interpretation of the facts and reasoning still leads you to believe your boss is in error, you’ve learned about your boss. You may also learn about their leaders. And then you control the decision and the timing of when you let them know you don’t agree.
Nice point Mike, ask. Thats pretty simple and with the right EQ i would say highly effective, thanks for the reminder. Richard
I’m honored you shared your insights here and thank you for taking a slightly different tact.
The richness of the conversation enhances everyone.
The “ask” principle makes lots of sense.
There is one time I went over my boss’s head that sticks out to me. I imagine (now that about 14 years have elapsed) that the board member I talked to when I went over the ED’s head eventually told her. It was quite an entrenched situation where our “new” vendor had been unable to cut refund checks to families for a period of MONTHS. The reasons we had customer service giving were getting lamer and lamer (we are updating our computers, etc.). I had hit a brick wall with the ED (and admittedly I had not tried every strategy suggested in today’s post.) When the board member, who I knew relatively well and had a degree of trust with, was in town along with a stakeholder who was especially upset about the issue, I engineered a discussion where the topic came up. His response, which I have valued always, was “If you have a fever you should probably check to see if there’s an infection.” Somehow he addressed this issue with our Ed without disclosing my role in the whole conversation and there was a change relatively soon thereafter in the refund situation.
To answer the original question, I think when the boss is entrenched in a specific opinion through stubbornness, denial, or some other issue, and your organization’s customers’ health (financial or physical) is endangered, it is worth the risk of going over their head.
You make me smile. Thanks for another wonderful story that helps us see one way to “go over the boss’ head.”
You always add value to the conversation.
Paula is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read her bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/paula-kiger
Thanks for another great post. In most cases, If you’ve been in business for any length of time you realize that no organization is immune to office politics. It exists in every organization without regard for structure, culture or values. While I don’t care for the chicanery of office politics, and attempt to avoid it where possible, I also understand the importance of being savvy enough to recognize it when it’s adversely impacting my world.
The sad reality is that covert actions take place everyday in the hallways, offices, and boardrooms of the business world. I know this sounds quite cynical, but the dark side of business rears its ugly head in every environment, and if you don’t pay attention to your surroundings you’ll fall prey to the venomous bite.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re at the top of the food chain, a middle manager, or an administrative staff member, the sad reality is that political high-jinks are likely part of your world whether you like it or not…While I’m certainly not advocating you adopt a state of perpetual paranoia, I am suggesting that you practice a heightened sense of awareness. When you’re dealing with somebody’s career, you are also dealing with a person’s sense of power, ego, financial security, self-worth, and many other things that people will do virtually anything to protect.
I have witnessed everything from the typical water-cooler gossip, to the land-grabs that take place while people are out on medical leave, family members treating other family members as if they were mortal enemies, supposed best friends undermining one another behind each other’s back, constant turf wars that take place for increased responsibility or visibility, shareholders frozen out, executives ousted for little more than hearsay, and the list goes on and on…
The bottom line is that politics are unavoidable in business. Not recognizing this fact may lead to you being on the outside looking in, while not ever knowing what hit you until it was too late. It pays to be aware of your surroundings and to look for inconsistent or predatory behavior on the part of subordinates, peers, and superiors alike.
So, back to your original question of what to do about it when you see it…If you understand what’s at stake for whom, and you pay attention to the behavioral patterns of those around you, it is quite possible that you may turn conflict into opportunity, close positional gaps and avoid unnecessary political battles. Don’t flex you ego, flex your leadership ability.
Remember, you’re on the same team. Your job isn’t to win, to sit in judgment, to disparage, or to undermine. The job is to create alignment and to execute. Coach rather than confront, facilitate rather than negotiate, teach rather than train. Again, the goal isn’t to win – it’s to align or realign and move forward.
Where ethics or legalities are involved, and reason and logic don’t prevail using the methods above, a decision needs to be made. Will you show courage and lead with your character by doing the right thing regardless of cost, or will you let your fear drive you to decision you’ll regret.
As a final thought, my best advice is to stay out of the drama whenever possible and let your work and your actions speak for themselves. Focus your efforts on building strong relationships underpinned by a solid foundation of humility and trust. The more time spent in helping those around you become successful, the more allies you will create, and the more political capital you’ll amass. The combination of doing the right thing, while being aware of your surroundings is the most savvy approach to managing office politics.
I hope these thoughts have helped Dan…thanks for the great discussion.
I’m thankful you shared your insights with us. Love how you break the topic down into two parts. The political component and then the “going over the head” component.
You enrich the conversation.
Best to you,
Been there, done that, bought the tshirt. It’s hard and scary, but worth it to know you have done the right thing. I have a great relationship with my boss today!
I’d say you did the “deed” the right way then… congratulations for living by your values.
Thank you, Dan, for tackling a tough subject. So many of us have been confronted with this question at one time or another. There are no clear-cut, easy answers, which is why your post and the conversation you have started is so important.
I’m especially intrigued by the comments on the risks (both the risk of elevating concerns and the risk of not doing it).
When I consider the risk of NOT elevating concerns, I am reminded of the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster in 1986 when the spacecraft broke apart and 7 people died because an O-ring seal failed. The investigation in the aftermath revealed that several engineers had voiced serious concerns to their manager about danger the current cold weather created for O-rings. Although management shared the engineers’ concern with Houston, the level and seriousness of their concern was not conveyed. The investigation revealed that NASA managers frequently evaded safety regulations to maintain the launch schedule so as not to adversely affect public perception of their competence. With such a pervasive attitude that public perception was more important than safety, would it have made a difference if the engineers had overstepped their boss and spoken directly with Houston?
Irving Janus, author of Group Think, studied a number of bad decisions in American foreign policy, where people withheld voicing their concerns. One example he cited was that the pressure for consensus in the Kennedy administration kept several people from voicing concerns that could have prevented the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
But not all organizations are like this. TJX, the parent company of TJ Maxx and several other off-price retail stores, has an “open door” policy where associates are expected to share information and ideas with all levels of management. If you go above your boss’ head with a concern, there are no repercussions. This policy is sacrosanct and ingrained in their corporate culture. In this company the risk of not elevating a concern was described well by Thabo Hermanus, “If you feel your boss is making decisions that do not act in the best interest of the company, staying and keeping quiet is equally as damaging to your career.”
Here are some of the questions I would ask myself when deciding whether to go above my boss:
1) How serious are the consequences of continuing down the wrong path? Is this an “0-ring” situtation?
2) Where does my company fall on the spectrum of “group think” to “open door?”
3) Did I do my homework? Is the decision my boss’ decision or is he or she implementing something coming from above? Do I understand the larger picture? Is there possibly a good reason that I’m not aware of?
4) What is my own ego investment – who is this really about?
Thanks again for putting this important topic on the table!
I forgot to mention the real risk: when the stakes are high, the risk is about a lot more than losing your job. It’s about losing yourself – who you are, your integrity.
Thanks for brining some real life examples to bear on this discussion. I was not aware of the position of TJX. Your insights are helpful.
All your points are helpful. #4 reminds me about emotional investment. It’s easy to lose perspective when we a decision becomes about us. Or as you suggest, about ego.
Honored by your contribution. Best with “Full Steam Ahead” I love it!
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