How Honest Should I Be With My Bosses?

Last Updated Sep 18, 2009 11:58 AM EDT

Dear Ron,
I've been asked to evaluate something in an area that's related to what I do at my company and frankly, I think it's crap. But I'm not sure that's what my bosses want to hear. How should I handle this?
You're right to be careful about being too candid. Beyond the fact that your blunt opinion might wind up offending whoever it is at your company that came up with the idea, your answer might inadvertently align you with or against the interests of other key players at your company to your detriment. So you need to know why you're being asked to evaluate something and who's ultimately doing the asking. To answer these questions, you'll need to do some research and talk to your contacts within the company, particularly the ones you've built up in your area of expertise.

After you've done this research, you may decide it's not in your interests to offer an honest opinion and so you might try to take a pass. Acknowledge that while the project or idea is worth considering, you don't have enough data yet to fully evaluate it. Tell them you'll get back to them once you have more definitive data, and perhaps you'll get off the hook that way. Of course, depending on who's asking you the question, it may be imprudent to pass on it, so what you want to do then is give an informed answer, but one that's as objective and neutral as possible. What you're trying to avoid is your comments having unintended consequences-for example, that your "expert" opinion gets used to support someone else's efforts whom you'd rather not be aligned with, or conversely, to tear down the efforts of someone who you want to be aligned with.

A very basic situation where someone spoke too freely involved a former client who was in sales development at a consumer products company. He was asked by a senior executive to critique a sales approach, not knowing that it had been developed by a very senior sales executive. My client told him the approach was terrible for all sorts of reasons, and his response made its way back to the senior executive. Needless to say, my client was in the doghouse for a long time after that.

But even in more complicated situations, it pays to do your research and know who your audience is before you speak too openly.

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  • Ron Brown

    Ronald B. Brown is a leading expert in the fields of leadership development and organizational change. He is the founder and president of Banks Brown, a management consulting firm that specializes in providing leading-edge skills to optimize the performance of leaders and organizations. He has served as a consultant to Fortune 100 corporations such as the Procter & Gamble Company, Avon Products, Inc., McDonald's Corporation, General Electric Plastics, Kaiser Permanente, Shell Oil Company, Eastman Kodak Company, General Mills Inc., and Motorola, Inc. Brown holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. and B.S. from Michigan State University.