Many years ago, I crewed at a Coast Guard search and rescue station located just south of Boston. Coast Guard stations typically have a Coast Guard Reserve unit associated with them. In the early 1980s, one of the reserve guys was Phil, a senior executive with a large New England phone company.
It seemed a little odd that someone with a master’s degree and a six-figure paycheck (a lot back then) would want to be an enlisted guy one weekend a month. Like most Coast Guardsmen, he liked being in the service because it gave him an opportunity to help people, to render assistance to those in need...and drive a fast, powerful boat without having to pay for the fuel.
Even though Phil was at least 20 years my senior, he and I became great friends and he often gave me little pearls of wisdom. The best advice he offered stuck, and helped me in every job I’ve had since.
Phil told me that when you’re a boss, there are two things you want to hear from the people who report to you. He said the best approach an employee can take is to have a conversation with the boss and commit to two statements:
- I will do my best to never let you be surprised by anything.
- I’d like to have one “yes, but…” on decisions you’re getting ready to make.
Phil explained that there is nothing worse for a boss than to be blindsided, particularly by their boss or peers. Your supervisor or manager wants to know what’s going on so that if questioned from above, they can sound like they’re on top of things. When you commit to keeping the boss informed, you’re giving assurance that you’ll do your best to keep them from being embarrassed.[pullquote]
You’re also letting the boss know that you understand an important aspect of management; the boss has concerns up the chain of command and with peer organizations. It shows you have management understanding and a level of leadership maturity. Of course surprises occur from time to time, but you should do your best to keep the boss informed as much as possible.
Being able to say “yes, but…” is the result of your boss leaving the door open for differing opinions on decisions being made. Two sets of eyes are better than one. When you ask for the boss’s permission to have one “yes, but…,” it conveys the idea that you’re engaged and that you want to help to institute the best policies and decisions.
By asking for an opportunity to give the “yes, but…,” you’re conveying your concern in an assertive, not an aggressive, manner. You’re recognizing the boss’s authority while offering to add perspective to the decision process. Looking out for the interests of those who work with and under you is important as well.
A couple of rules go along with the “yes, but…” response. First, you have to use tact when you’re invoking that phrase. Consider the setting in which you express a dissenting viewpoint. You might need to ask for a one-on-one sidebar with the boss so you don’t unintentionally voice something embarrassing. The idea isn’t to one-up your boss; the idea is to strengthen your team by helping to make the best decisions. The second thing to consider when using the “yes, but…” is that after you voice your opinion, you need to be prepared to follow whatever the boss decides.
Notice that you don’t get two, three or four “yes, but’s…” It’s just one. So, when you’re getting ready to invoke it, make sure you communicate your thoughts on the matter well. Also, don’t overdo the “yes, but…” Don’t challenge every decision; just those that really need to be challenged.
If you do these two things well, you’ll foster a great deal of trust between you and your boss. It will pay off in more autonomy to do your job as you see fit.
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER Inc. Contact him at [email protected] and (321) 773-3356.