At lunch you vent to your co-worker that your boss’ recent decision will cause problems down the road for the project you’re working on. But later that afternoon, when your manager brings up that same topic, you don’t say a word. Your lunch companion glares at you, radiating her view that you should speak up—and you want to, you really do. However, your mouth has gone dry, and you can’t figure out how to make your voice work. You’re afraid to tell the boss that his decision is flawed.
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Of all the fears I’ve helped people overcome as an executive coach, this one—being scared to correct your boss—is by far the most common. Yet speaking truth to power is crucial for your personal and professional development. And the good news? It’s a learnable skill! One that’s easier to master once you’re aware of how your emotions impact your behavior.
When there’s something you’re afraid to discuss with your boss, follow these steps:
1. Name the Fear
What exactly are you afraid of? Being wrong? Creating conflict? Getting fired? Verbalizing your fear demystifies it. It also gives the rational part of your brain a chance to examine the situation and problem-solve.
If you’re scared to speak up because you haven’t had time to think things through, then you can wait and follow up later. If you’re afraid of being wrong, see if you can find research or something to strengthen your position. If you're scared of being fired, remind yourself that you want to work for someone who'll allow you to voice your concerns.
Once you drag the Bogeyman out of the closet, you diminish its hold over you.
2. Reconnect With Your Values
What we value motivates us toward action. If you’re still hesitant to voice disagreement, consider your values and challenge yourself to live by them. What if your boss’ decision will waste company resources or have a negative impact on the environment? What if your disagreement would’ve led to a better solution?
Voicing a concern could improve the bottom line or your corner of the world. It could also increase the team’s chances for success—and your chances for a promotion. Connecting the need to speak up with something that’s important to you can provide you with the incentive to overcome your fear.
3. Engage With Empathy
Take a few deep breaths and stand in your boss’ shoes. Wouldn’t you want someone to tell you if you had made a mistake, or if your suggestion had unintended consequences? Managers are people too, and just like you, they have blind spots. If you’d be grateful having someone cover your blind spot, chances are, so would she.
Of course, being empathetic also means avoiding the temptation to say “I told you so,” or hammer home the fact that you were right. Keep your focus on being helpful, not superior.
4. Practice With a Sounding Board
Whenever you tackle something new or difficult, practice can help you feel more confident. Find a coach or a friend outside the office to act as a sounding board. Test out the words and the tone you’ll use and get feedback about how you come across, so you can be sure you don’t accidentally come off as accusatory (or a know-it-all). Role play possible responses from your boss and practice replying in the moment, so you won’t feel caught off guard.
5. Speak as an Ally
You and your boss are on the same team and you ultimately share the same goals. That’s a great place to begin your conversation. For example, “I know we’re looking for ways to innovate without the budget taking a hit; however, I thought it’d be helpful to point out that…”
Another way to do this is to avoid “you” statements (e.g., “You made a mistake when you told me to focus all of my efforts on new projects). Instead, use “I” (e.g., “I’m feeling stretched thin and I don’t have enough time to maintain previous work).
Fear of speaking truth to power is like all the other fears you’ve ever faced and conquered. If you can now ride a bike, survive a first date, and handle the challenge of a new job, then there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t master this skill, too.