What to Do When Your Boss Says Something You Regret

Posted 12.09.2011

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times today for anyone who has ever had to improvise madly when their boss makes an unexpected public commitment. The subject is Dan Akerson, who’s been the CEO of General Motors for 15 months. Akerson is not a “car guy.” He made his bones in telecommunications and came to GM from the world of private equity investments.  He’s had a lot of successes in his career and is fond of speaking his mind. That’s not what they’ve been used to at GM the last couple of decades and he’s shaking up the company’s culture.

The latest example is when some potential problems developed with the battery in GM’s showpiece hybrid, the Chevy Volt. Here’s how Bill Vlasic of The Times described Akerson’s response to the Volt situation:

“The problems with the Volt are a case in point. A few days after the conference call, Mr. Akerson went well beyond the discussion that day and told The Associated Press during a visit to New York that G.M. was willing to buy back Volts from concerned owners. Back in Detroit, company officials scrambled to explain the offer as a gesture of good will to its customers, denying that Mr. Akerson was setting policy on the fly.”

That’s a pretty interesting response on the part of the company officials.  It sounds like they placed as much emphasis on the fact that their CEO wasn’t setting policy on the fly as they did about generating good will with customers.

If you’re a senior manager or executive in your organization, perhaps you’ve been in a similar situation where your boss says something that you regret. How do you handle that? My thoughts might surprise you.

Recognize that it’s not about you:  If you find yourself getting torqued when your boss gets out ahead of you, you might ask yourself what about that bothers you? Is it because you’re going to have to scramble to meet the boss’s commitment? Is it because you weren’t consulted? Is it because you’re chagrined that you didn’t make that recommendation yourself? Is it something else? I’m not saying that the answers to any of those questions are invalid. I’m just saying that it’s useful to check your perspective and headset before you act.

Check the source of your response:  Are you responding from the perspective of years of conventional wisdom or are you responding from the perspective of what you’re trying to accomplish in the future? It’s easy to get caught up in the “We’ve never done that before,”  mentality. Look for the opportunities – expected or unexpected – to help create the future.

Lean in:  Focus on the bigger picture and lean into it. You can either tell yourself a story about how crazy things are or tell yourself a story about how cool it is to be part of something new and not boring.

Look, I know senior executive bosses can do and say some pretty crazy things and it’s not always easy to deal with that. All I’m saying is that there may be times when they’re doing the right thing for the future and a lot of people haven’t caught up with that yet.

What do you think?