You’re probably used to your boss telling you what you’ve done wrong, but what if you need to tell your boss that she’s messed up? Not so easy. You don’t want to seem like a whiner or an obnoxious git. Is it even possible to tell your boss she’s wrong without getting in trouble?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes, but you need to consider carefully how you approach it. And keep in mind that personality matters a lot here. If your boss is a complete and total jerk about everything, she’s going to be a jerk when you tell her she’s doing something wrong. That doesn’t mean you made a mistake in telling her; it just means she’s a jerk. But you knew that. Anyway, here’s how to do it.

Phrase It As a Question

While people don’t like being told they’ve done something wrong, they are happy to point out to you where you’ve gone wrong. (Not sure what this says about society in general, but there you go.) For instance, if you think your boss has made a huge mistake on an estimate, ask her about it like this: “Jane, I don’t quite get how you got to this number on the estimate. Can you go through it with me?”

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As she’s going through the estimate, ask for more explanation on the points where you think there are errors. Either she’ll figure it out herself, or you’ll learn that you were wrong. Keep in mind that often the boss has more experience than you do and what you think are errors really are not. This is one of the reasons this question phrasing technique can be very effective — not only does it help your boss fix her errors, it teaches you a lot in the process.

Come With a Solution

Not all errors and negative feedback can be addressed with a question. For example, if you think the way your boss deals with customer complaints is unproductive, it might be better to try this technique: provide a solution.

Let’s say you’ve noticed that your daily schedule is unrealistic. You’re spending a lot of time driving back and forth across town. Instead of saying to your boss, “This scheduling stinks,” try saying, “I think we could be more efficient if we consistently scheduled suburb A for morning appointments and suburb B for afternoon appointments. Then we won’t waste time crossing back and forth.” Coming up with a solution can make it seem like you’re just a positive helper instead of pointing out errors.

Be Direct

Sometimes a problem is big enough that it needs to be addressed immediately. If your boss makes a racist comment about a client, speak up immediately: “That isn’t appropriate, and I’d appreciate you not speaking that way in front of me.” If your boss is making an error right now that overcharges a client, say directly, “I think the math is wrong on that. Let’s double check it.”

Do you take a risk when you tell your boss she’s doing it wrong? Absolutely. Does it have to be scary? Not if you do it right. Most bosses aren’t jerks and will listen to what you say. Give it a try and see if you can make your working environment better.

ABOUT Suzanne Lucas

Avatar photoSuzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She now writes about Human Resources and Business for a number of different publications.