Workplace tactic: #4
Talking to supervisor about your concerns
July 2023 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

From time to time, your boss, manager or supervisor will make a suggestion about doing things in a different way, which may or may not be a good idea but which can raise a number of concerns about the quality of your work or how people are getting along. When it’s time to raise your concerns, here’s how to go about it.

Mentioning your concerns to a manager, supervisor or boss is difficult for a variety of reasons. First, there is the expectation that, as an employee, you are expected to do what you are asked to do — which is true. Second, it can be difficult for anyone, including managers, supervisors or bosses, to take criticism, so you need to be able to do that well. Very often, you may wonder if there is any point in expressing concerns. It might be better to just do your job and not mention anything. Still, many employers are interested in feedback from employees, especially if that feedback can solve problems, improve performance or foster a better environment for staff and customers, whoever they may be.  Here’s how to do it:

Step #1. Introduce yourself and state your record.

The first step is to start the conversation with your manager, supervisor or boss and remind them who they are talking to. You might say something like this:

Mr. Jones. As you know, I’ve been working here for the past ____ months / years. I appreciate the opportunity and have enjoyed working for you.

Rationale: Stating your record is an important skill and a reminder to you and to your boss that you are a valued employee that has contributed to the organization. This is an important reminder to your boss to be taken seriously, even when you are raising concerns or making requests. It does not need to be very in this instance detailed, but it may be, depending on how much you feel you need to remind your manager, supervisor or boss that you are a valued and serious employee.

Step #2. Be polite, acknowledge your role and be direct about stating your concern.

In this next step, you need to state your concern but do so in a way that is both polite and acknowledging your role in the organization.

We’ve recently been asked to ___________. I understand that you’d like to do things differently. And I am happy to do so. However, I have a concern about how this will affect what we’re making / the staff. I am concerned that …

Rationale: So much has been said in the statement. First, you have described what you’ve been asked to do. Second, you have acknowledged that your supervisor or boss, do you get to decide how they run their organization, which for the most part, is true. As an employee, you work for others and do not necessarily have the final say on how to do things (even if it is a bad idea). In most instances, all you can do here is explain how the decision affects the workplace. Employers care (or should care) about two things – workplace performance (i.e., how effectively the work gets done) and workplace harmony (i.e., how staff get along). Both workplace performance and workplace harmony are critical to any organization. Any threat to either of these will be (or should be) a concern to a manager, boss or employer. As a result, the best chance of having your concerns taken seriously is to illustrate how what is being done affects either workplace performance or workplace harmony.

Step #3. Make a request.

In this next step, you can make a request or offer a solution. Most managers and employers don’t mind people mentioning problems or concerns if they come with a solution.

Mr. Jones. I was wondering if it would be possible to go about this a little bit differently. Rather than doing ______ would it be alright if we did ________. If it was done this way, I was thinking that the concern about (workplace performance workplace harmony) would be resolved a little. I think that this could save us a bit of time, and maybe make things a little bit better for us and the customers.

Rationale: Once again, the tone in this step is one of politeness and respect for your role. And, again, you have tied the request you have to the two things that matter most, namely workplace performance (i.e., getting things done more efficiently or more effectively) and workplace harmony (i.e., making things more pleasant for staff customers).

What are workplace tactics?

Workplace tactics are a group of skills needed in the workplace when talking to managers, supervisors, bosses or employers. These include:

Stating your record (Tactic #1). Coming soon. 
Managing expectations (Tactic #2). Coming soon.
Saying no to a request (Tactic #3). Coming soon. 
Mentioning concerns (Tactic #4). 

Start learning the skills you will need in the workplace, even before you need them.  

Step #4: Pushing back by asking questions

Sometimes stating your record, and expressing your concerns in making a request is not enough. In this instance, you may wish to push a little harder. One of the most effective skills to push back against what’s being done, is to ask a simple question about how something is going to work. Asking questions is effective because it makes somebody else accountable (to you) at the moment that you ask the question. If I ask you why we’re doing things in a certain way, you are asked to provide me with a reason. Asking questions is a high-stakes move. For many people, including managers, bosses and employers, it will be experienced as threatening. In the moment in which you ask a question, the power dynamic changes. Asking your manager, boss or employer to provide an account to you.

If you elect you push back by asking questions, it is critical that you adopt a tone of politeness, curiosity and pleasantness — all of which are designed to make questions less threatening while preserving what makes a question so effective (i.e., people are accountable to you). You might say something like this.

Mr. Jones. I understand that we have been doing this in a certain way; I’m just not getting how it is that this is going to work. I am just thinking that (mention the concern again that is not being addressed) will still be left unresolved, and I’m wondering what we can do about that.

Tip: if you elect to push by asking questions, make sure that when users ask questions, you do it with a smile, a genuine tone of curiosity, and a little bit of naivete. You want to communicate the idea that you’re just not understanding. If, what your manager, boss or employer is doing, is badly thought out, half-baked or ineffective, eventually, the answer or explanation that you are provided will not make any sense to you or anyone else. If you can express your concerns and ask your question politely in meetings, then others will have an opportunity just to step in and take your side.

Step #5: Be patient
The last step is to be patient and wait. Express your concerns make requests, ask your questions once and then twice and then wait. Badgering your manager, boss, or employer will be perceived as disrespectful and the merits of your concerns and the potential of your requests will be overlooked. Your manager, boss and supervisor may need some time to process your suggestion. That means waiting and understanding that you may need to mention your concerns a couple of times.

Step #6: Going big

If your concerns remain unaddressed, you have one further option, which is to talk to other people who can influence the decisions that sure manager, boss or employer has made. This means talking to your manager’s boss, the owner’s boss, a union representative (if you belong to a union), or even an external association or agency that can represent the rights of workers. This is a big move that will likely be seen as disrespectful to you, and you may lose your job (whether or not that is fair or appropriate). It depends on the issue. If it’s about your safety – physical or mental – or the safety of other employees or customers, you may feel obliged to talk to others about it. If you go this route, you will need to have people on your side who understand and who can help you through the process of talking to others about your experiences. This is a big step which is sometimes important and necessary but which will likely have consequences and therefore need to be considered carefully.

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