Solution Saturday: My Leader Screwed Up

Dear Dan,

Our leader made a really bad decision. Now he isn’t making it right because he’s afraid of losing face.

I’m planning to tell the boss he made a bad decision that is turning into a fiasco. If he would have consulted with the people impacted by his decision, he wouldn’t be in this situation.

How can I tell the boss he made a bad decision?

Thank you for any advice,

Concerned in the Middle

stress makes you forget who you are

Dear Concerned,

I don’t know much about this situation and I’m glad I don’t. I’ll offer some broad suggestions that might help you think your own thoughts.

First, some bosses enjoy receiving tough feedback. It seems like yours doesn’t. I’m responding with that in mind.

My typical advice on issues like this includes:

  1. Adopt a learner’s attitude. It’s too easy to know what others should do.
  2. Clarify issues. Make sure everyone is talking about the same concern.
  3. Reject tendencies to focus on things you don’t want and don’t like.
  4. Give voice to positive intentions.
  5. Focus on the purpose of the decision, more than the decision itself. What are we trying to accomplish?
  6. Overcome the tendency to become attached to one idea by exploring several alternatives.
  7. Offer to help. Don’t bring it up, if you aren’t willing to put some skin in the game.

7 ways to tell face-saving leaders they screwed up:

#1. Focus on the issue, not the boss.

Wrong decisions bring to mind other weaknesses of your boss. If he collaborated more, this wouldn’t happen. If he had clearer focus, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

One bad thing tumbles into other bad things. Before long, the world stinks. An argument about family finances, for example, might end up with, “And, you’re just like your mother!”

Distraction dilutes influence.

#2. Accept the boss. Don’t fix the boss.

Come at this from your leader’s strengths and motivations, not yours. What does he do well? How might that apply to this situation?

Don’t leap from working on an issue to fixing the boss. You probably think you have the boss figured out, but you might feel different, if you sat in his chair.

Being fixed feels like rejection. Rejection invites resistance.

You may wish your boss was more decisive, collaborative, compassionate, courageous, or – (insert your concern here). This isn’t a development moment. Focus on the issue.  People don’t set out to screw up.


  1. It would be better if you …
  2. If you were more proactive …
  3. You should …
  4. You shouldn’t …

Sentences that begin with “you” invite resistance. Use “we” not “you”. 

#3. Weak language has power.

Some leaders enjoy direct language. I’m betting yours doesn’t. Successful communicators adapt to the audience. Try:

  1. I wonder if…
  2. I could be wrong…
  3. I’ve been thinking about…

Weak language opens minds. Strong language ignites resistance.

#4. Don’t make it about the past.

“You should have ….,” invites defensiveness.

It’s futile to dream of changing something that never changes.

#5. Speak for yourself.

Don’t escalate issues by saying, “Everyone is concerned about this.”

#6. Be clear and specific when setting up the meeting.

The toughest thing about tough conversations is getting started.

Include the tough part when you start. “I’d like to discuss our new marketing campaign. I could be wrong, but I’m concerned that it’s not going to work out like we hope.”

#7. Get to the point quickly.

  1. Begin with the issue.
  2. Get to positive intentions.
  3. Offer reasons after.

Find agreement on intentions. Reasons, solutions, and explanations are debatable.

The most important thing:

Give voice to your heart. 

Keep your best intentions for your organization and leader in mind. It’s easy to lose sight of driving concerns and focus on tactics, logistics, and specificities. Don’t lose sight of your heart.

Stress makes you forget who you are.

Tip: If you feel your boss’s frustration going up, ask, “What am I missing?” His frustration indicates a belief that you don’t get it.

What suggestions do you have for Concerned in the Middle?

*I suspend my 300 word limit on Solution Saturday.

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