A variation of an article I see online that seems to be rewritten and republished on a frequent basis is a list of things you should never tell your boss.
At the top of this list is always a piece of advice that says never, ever tell your boss that something is impossible. Under any circumstances. To do so is career suicide. In the harshest versions of these articles saying something is impossible may forever brand you a “loser”, or worse.
There is a difference between giving your supervisor honest, well thought out, data supported opinions that show something may in fact be impossible, and just being negative. If you are in an environment where you can’t make a reasonable argument that something is impossible, and the expectation is that everything passed down from above is possible, you are in an environment doomed to fail.
In the 80’s someone should have noted the long odds of success for New Coke. In the 90’s someone should have told executives at McDonald’s that no one will ever visit that restaurant to buy pizza or healthy burgers. In the 2000’s someone should have told Vince McMahon and the WWE that the XFL was a bad idea.
No one wanted to hear those ideas were impossible.
But the reality is that they were, and I’m guessing that someone at WWE lost their job when the public sent the message that with all due respect to Arena Football, one professional football league was enough.
All that said, if you have to deliver the message that an idea or project will not succeed, here are a few things to keep in mind.
How you say “it’s impossible” matters.
Your tone matters, and so do the specific words you use. We’ve all heard ideas from a boss that we know are not likely to succeed. Take a break before you respond. Genuinely consider the idea. Realize that the suggestion probably matters to the person making it, so no matter how far-fetched it may seem, don’t be outwardly dismissive of the idea. An important part of not appearing outwardly dismissive will come down to your tone and the specific words you use.
Do some research, and back up your opinions.
Get some data to back up your assertion. Whether it’s quantitative or qualitative, try and have something to support your professional opinion regarding the feasibility of a project. One of the quickest ways to get labels like “negative” or “toxic” is to dismiss ideas in a knee-jerk fashion.
Be reasonable, present your side, and remember…
It’s just business. Don’t let it turn personal.
If your work matters to you, and you have a passion for what you do, you’ll have strong opinions. That’s great. But if that’s the case, it can be easy to let a difference of opinion become personal. When something becomes personal, it can become ugly, and it can become so ugly you can’t repair the relationship.
The people you work with and for aren’t family—even if it seems like it. You can reach a point where a relationship becomes so damaged that there is no choice but to move on, and if that happens you will be replaced. Even if that doesn’t happen, you can turn the place where you spend a big chunk of your waking hours into a bad place to be.
When you have to say something is impossible, say it the right way. Watch your tone and the specific language you use. Back up what you say, and don’t let it turn personal.
Because in the end, hopefully you are getting paid to be a professional and provide feedback based on your experience and expertise. If the only answer you can give is yes, you are not being paid to give your expertise. You’re there to be an echo chamber.
And you can do better than that.
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