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What To Do When Your Boss Has A Really Bad Idea

You're in a meeting when your boss throws out what could be one of the worst ideas in the entire history of the world. Oh no, what to do.

Anyone who works long enough will encounter the departmental manager or CEO with The Really Bad Idea. This idea is breathtaking both in its stupidity and its probability of failure, whether it's an "idea" (I use the term loosely) for a new product, an updated procedure or even simple suggestions for a co-worker's surprise birthday party. Besides wondering how this person was elected leader in the first place, you suddenly feel like you're between a rock and a hard place. Do I call my boss out on his or her disastrous idea, or do I go with the flow as it inevitably circles the drain?

This question is on my mind after reading a L.A. Times story over the weekend in which Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said something silly. So silly, in fact, that I had to re-read the passage a few times to make sure I had read it correctly. Commenting on wife Ann Romney's smoke-filled emergency plane landing, Romney said:

"I appreciate the fact that she is on the ground, safe and sound. And I don't think she knows just how worried some of us were," Romney said. "When you have a fire in an aircraft, there's no place to go, exactly, there's no — and you can't find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don't open. I don't know why they don’t do that. It's a real problem."

Now imagine an airline executive saying the same thing. Yes, why don't airplane windows open? I mean, we should be able to roll them down or pull them off or something. It's a real problem. Can someone get back to me with some market research, stat? I think we're onto something here!

OMG.

In all fairness, Mitt Romney isn't a seasoned airline executive and I'm glad Ann and crew are okay. Also, chances are pretty good that the average, seasoned airline executive would never, ever say such a thing due to factors such as cabin depressurization, emergency doors located throughout the aircraft, and 400-mile-an-hour winds that could rip one's arm off. But then again, you never know how you'll react until the boss's Really Bad Idea lands at your feet. Substitute airline executive for any leader in any industry talking about any product, procedure or surprise party, and there's simply not enough leg room to make a Really Bad Idea work. In fact, the whole thing is a three-legged race through the airport straight onto the tarmac. My boss thinks this is a good idea!? Really!?

But what to do about it, because in this one-slip-up-away-from-a-pink-slip economy only the bravest of souls is willing to be the one to throw water on the boss's fired-up ideas. So employees grumble quietly about how the emperor has no clothes, send a lot of emails and instant messages the company tells them not to send, and spend too much mental energy finding ways to avoid taking the blame when things inevitably go wrong.

If you're deciding whether or not to speak up in the face of your boss's stupendously bad idea, then you'll have to ponder the upsides and the downsides.

Upsides: Speaking up to smack down the boss's bad idea before it happens -- or at least, pointing out the potential pitfalls -- can give you a protective aura of "I told you so" as the s&%t starts to hit the fan. You were the prescient, brave one who spoke up. The key is to put it out there without being too negative. Start positively ("I like your point about...") before gently laying out your case against it. Your co-workers might respect you more for helping them avoid hours/days/months of useless work. At minimum, you'll walk away with more self-respect. Maybe your boss will thank you too, once he or she realizes how right you are, and that you're not just another "yes" man or woman. Bask in the glow of your new-found role as the all-knowing cube farm Sensei. Or a much-deserved promotion, as the case may be.

Downsides: You spoke up, and the boss smacked you down. Your co-workers are flabbergasted, and your boss just gives you that look. You know the one. Congratulations, now you look like a poor team player. You couldn't just go along to get along, could you? No, you just had to open your mouth and shut the door on your future at this company. Funny how your performance reviews suddenly say you need to work on your sense of teamwork, and how you tend to be a tad on the glass-half-empty side. Your kiss-ass co-worker is going to conferences and business lunches with the boss while you sit at your desk wondering if you should start sending out your resume again. It seems like a good idea as the days goes by. It's better than watching your boss's Really Bad Idea crash and burn, anyway. And you'll get to leave with your integrity intact, which is worth something. With any luck, your personal integrity will be worth more than the company's valuation after the Really Bad Idea hits the marketplace.

So, there you go. You have a hard decision to make, and only you know how your boss might react based on past history. Let the various scenarios taxi down the runway of your mind and hope they catch some smooth air. The closest emergency exit is five feet up on your left. Please make a mental note of it, because the windows don't open.

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