You’re not going to be thrilled with every assignment you’re given, with every task you’re asked to carry out, with every project you’re instructed to oversee. That’s the reality of having a job. It’s a lot like life—you take the good with the bad and the annoying or boring.
But, navigating tedious responsibilities or work that doesn’t stoke your fire is a far cry from handling a request from your boss that requires you to basically throw a colleague under the bus. If your manager approaches you about taking one for the team, framing it as an item that’s simply part of your job and something that has to be done, you’re probably not going to feel good about it.
If you have any kind of moral compass and a reluctance to injure a team member’s reputation or inaccurately blame a co-worker for a project gone wrong, then you’ll likely want to find a way to say no to your supervisor without risking your position at the company.
Seven Muse Career Coaches weighed in with excellent advice for handling this tricky situation. Just because the request isn’t illegal or even really unethical doesn’t mean you have no choice but to heed the demand. There’s a big picture here, and if you ignore it just to appease your manager, you could come to regret it later.
1. Repeat the Request
Share with your boss what you think the task is so that you are 100% clear about her request. Saying it aloud before acting on it may also help your manager see why and how she’s put you in an uncomfortable position. If, after repeating it, you’re still expected to carry out the request and you’re feeling apprehensive, speak up. Clearly, tell your boss—face-to-face is best—why you’re not cool with it.
2. Investigate with Questions
If you find yourself in this awkward situation, one of the most powerful strategies you can deploy is asking probing questions. Skilled conflict mediators know that digging for information about the other person’s agenda, interests, and needs increases the chance of arriving at a favorable solution. Put on your negotiator hat and say to your boss with confidence, ‘I’m not sure I grasp the reasoning behind sharing those details with the entire company. Can you help me understand the approach?’ This expresses interest and curiosity on your part, while also subtly communicating an assertion of boundaries, maturity, and professionalism. You’re demonstrating that you make informed, measured decisions. Using psychologically-disarming questioning ensures neither side becomes defensive and helps you set the stage for a fruitful back-and-forth dialogue with your boss.
3. Consider the Big Picture
Any request from a manager needs to be considered relative to the long-term impact on the company and your standards for personal integrity. If you feel a request would violate either of these, you have an obligation to express your concerns before agreeing to take any action. If you’re pressed to follow through with the request, simply say no and explain your reasoning. Just be prepared to stick to your guns and suffer the consequences. A healthy organization will look at the full context of a situation before taking action. And if it doesn’t or if you’re singled out by a manager, you probably don’t want to work there anyway. Keep good notes and be ready to explain to new employers what happened and why you left.
4. Enlighten Your Boss
I once had a similar instance with a director at the company (who was not my boss, but still senior to me). We were scoping out a client project, and there was a lot of internal disagreement over a specific component of the project. We were asked to have a back-up solution in place for a highly unlikely scenario. Although it was highly improbable that we’d need this alternate fix, we had to devise it based on the client's marketing plan.
Unsure whether we were capable of creating that back-up solution in the timeframe given, I was, nonetheless, instructed by the director to tell the client that the deadline wasn’t a problem. I felt very uncomfortable misleading the client this, and so I decided to be straight up with my supervisor on the project, ‘If I gave the phone to you, would you be able to tell them the same thing in good conscience?’
He admitted that no, he wouldn’t be able to do that, and I think at that moment he saw the error in what he was asking me to do. We, ultimately, ended up figuring out a way to build the solution the client was looking for, and we didn't lie to them. Sometimes, it’s going to be up to you to show your boss the problematic nature of his request.
5. Offer an Alternate Solution
Be honest in a diplomatic and tactful way. Let your boss know that you’re uncomfortable with the request, but don’t just leave it at that. If you’re going to take issue with something, it’s always best if you can offer a solution. Brainstorm a better, more professional way of handling his request and suggest an alternate approach. If your idea is rejected, continue to stand your ground and explain that you’re hopeful that you can find a way to work together to develop another way of dealing with the issue.
6. Be a Team Player
Bosses come and go, but your sense of justice and conscience are with you for life. Of course, you still need a paycheck, and, thus, a way to handle moral ambiguity in the office.
Navigate a distasteful request from your boss by bringing up the team. Assuming your organization values teamwork, say, ‘We talk a lot in this company about team work—about winning losing as a team. As such, neither I nor the rest of the team feel it’s fair for me or any other single person to shoulder the responsibility for the failure of this project. It also sends the wrong message to the other team members. We’ll recover and rebuild. But let's not just talk about being a team, let’s be one in spite of this obstacle.’
By sending the message that it’s not just you who feels this way but the entire team, you’re showing respect for your colleagues and refusing to throw anyone under the bus. It’s unlikely that your boss will fire or censure the entire team.
7. Articulate Your Concerns
There is no doubt that this scenario presents a tricky situation of power. When a supervisor asks you to do something you don't want to do, it's always challenging to walk the line of honoring your values and being professional. However, in an instance in which the request is so clearly antithetical to common tenets of strong team culture and positive leadership, it’s especially important to hold your ground. Explain what makes you uncomfortable about the approach; lean on the company culture (if possible) of promoting collaboration and team efficacy. You can also note that it’s more important to figure out a strong way forward as opposed to placing blame on the past breakdown or failure. Your boss is more likely to be impressed by your pushback and dedication to your team than frustrated by your unwillingness to abide by the request. At the end of the day, you want to feel comfortable that you can live with your actions, even if you don't love your leader’s.