Product Management Library of Knowledge
Maintaining Truth in the Face of Power
By: Therese Padilla
Being an organizational leader has some amazing advantages but can also have some thankless risks. They're tasked with keeping everyone on the same page. Keeping everyone moving forward. Steering the organizational ship, so to speak. They worked hard to get where they are today and it is their vision that will empower the rest of the organization from the top down.
But that doesn't mean they can't make mistakes. When it's your boss and you know you have to tell them they are wrong, it becomes a character building experience. As a product manager, one of the things that you're going to have to get used to is the idea that your power of persuasiveness will be tested at every level. Your own leaders can and will make mistakes, which can be particularly costly because the stakes are so high. Reputations can be ruined. Money can be lost. Success can be risked on the basis of one wrong move. It is important for you to be able to diplomatically yet decisively correct your leadership when you know they're about to move down that path.
The Importance of the Word "NO"
As a practical matter, the word "NO" is an incredibly powerful one. When talking to people who make more money than you do, or worse, who can control your career advancement, you might be afraid to use it at all - you might consider it akin to mutiny. But "NO" can communicate a lot of things. It shows that you care. It shows that you know what you're doing.
You just have to know how to use it in the right way.
Before You Begin: Building Your Case
Before you march into your boss's office and tell them that they're about to make a mistake, always check your facts. If you're about to tell someone they're working off of incomplete or incorrect information, you'd better make sure that your own is in order. Also, check your motives - why are you having this conversation in the first place? This goes back to checking your facts. Is your motive fact based or ego based? Finally, check your timing - why is it important for this conversation to be had NOW?
Presenting Your Case
Above all else, it's important to be humble, respectful and AUTHENTIC at all times. If you've played any role in the situation you now find yourself in, admit it.
Always choose your words very carefully. Check your language and watch your tone - the fastest way to get someone to do the opposite of what you want them to is to treat them with disrespect at such an important moment.
If things must escalate, do so cautiously. Always remember that you're not having an argument or a fight - you're supposed to be having a conversation.
Finally, once this conversation is over, let it go. As the legendary football coach Lou Lombardi once said, "leave it all on the field." Leave any emotions or ill will that may have presented themselves in your conversation behind and don't let it get in the way of what you must do moving forward.
Looking to the Future
After a moment of truth, it's common to be worried about potential ramifications from telling your boss they were wrong, particularly in terms of career advancement. It's always important to document both your concerns and your actions very carefully. You might not like the idea that you are in CYA mode ("Covering your butt") but as clichés go it's the case when speaking truth to power.
In the event that some unintended consequence DOES end up happening down the road, you'll be incredibly happy that you kept those notes. This will also be particularly useful if leadership hears your concerns, listens to your advice and then elects to ignore it anyway.
It is also always helpful to remember when you are in this situation of telling your boss they are headed down a wrong path that it is being done for mutual advancement and in the interest of the company.