A really difficult and sensitive issue in ‘management’ and ‘leadership’: how do junior colleagues tell senior colleagues that they’re (perhaps) not getting it right?

One of my own most powerful life lessons on this came back in the early 1980s when I was a mere Second Secretary at the British Embassy in communist Yugoslavia. Full story here.

The Ambassador summoned me to his office to ask my view on a long analytical piece he’d written. It was basically boring if not irrelevant, and not even especially well written. He asked me what I thought. I did not reply. What to say?

“I know what you’re thinking!” he said.  “You think it’s pedestrian!”

“Well, as a matter of fact I do think that

“Let me tell you something. You are also the only person in the Embassy who says what you really think. The others (gesturing down the corridor to his senior colleagues)  are all Yes-men! Never give that up!”

Wow. So much going on here.

In lots of cultures it’s more or less impossible to say anything negative to one’s boss, publicly or privately. There is an overwhelming emphasis on loyalty as the ultimate professional quality. Anything that brings with it even a trace of suspicion is unacceptable. And what can be more horribly disloyal than criticising a boss to her/his face?

This can go as far as it being rude/disrespectful to look the boss in the eye when the boss is giving a speech. So much for a leader working to build eye-contact with the audience.

So when I ask international colleagues on leadership courses how they would respond to such a question from their boss, there is always a strong bloc of jovial support for telling the boss that the document is just right! Why say anything else, let alone what you really think? The boss won’t like your impertinence. You might be PUNISHED.

When I was running different embassies I gave my PA and Deputy a specific job description role: to come in, shut the door, and tell me straight if I was getting something wrong. I made clear that I might not be pleased to here this. But I would be far MORE displeased to find out that I had got something seriously wrong and no-one had told me.

* * * * *

Another example, this one from the British Army. True story.

A Brigadier was walking across the base and passed two junior soldiers. They did not salute, as per the rule. He noted this, frowned, but said nothing.

The Sergeant-Major invited the Brigadier to the Sergeants’ Mess for a drink that evening. A beer was poured. The Sergeant then addressed the Brigadier in front of the other sergeants:


I watched today when two soldiers passed you without saluting.

I also watched that you did not call them up on it.

When we go into battle under your leadership, Sir, we need to know where we stand – that all rules and procedures count. 

That’s all, Sir. Have a good evening

Just think about the huge leadership and ‘cultural’ issues going on in that exchange. Great leaders need great followers.

* * * * *

This issue often comes up for speechwriters. They are keen to write a good speech. But they fear that their boss won’t want to make a good speech, preferring to stick to ‘the usual’. Or the boss might just be a poor speaker. What to do?

My book Speeches for Leaders tackles this very problem. There are some ploys to make progress. Such as calling the event organisers and suggesting to them that on this next occasion your boss might prefer to talk in a more personal/frank and less ‘formal’ way. They’ll be delighted. Armed with that, you then serve up a very different sort of speech to said boss, explaining that this time you’ve changed the tone/style/message as that’s what the organisers themselves prefer.

Sometimes that may not work. You have no choice. Deep breath. Ask to meet your boss. Shut the door behind you. And say it straight:

I know that you insist on honesty and excellence from your team.

So I feel that I can be honest now.

Your presentation yesterday did not go down well! Lots of people afterwards were saying that it was unconvincing or even boring.

And I think they had a point!

Might I offer you some personal ideas on getting a much better result next time..?

The boss won’t like this. But s/he’ll think that you (a) have a lot of nerve, and (b) stand out from the other lickspittles down the corridor.

And, slowly but surely, things get better for everyone. No pain, no gain.