Image by u/Kruzat, available via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
As I’m sure many of you have already seen, Elon Musk has announced Tesla Bot, a humanoid robot intended to“automate repetitive tasks”. The CEO announced Tesla Bot not with a working prototype or even a partial proof-of-concept, but with a dancer dressed in a modified morphe suit who “gyrated wildly on stage” before the presentation. The robot has a vague timetable, with Musk claiming a prototype will be out sometime next year, and an ambitious set of (at this point hypothetical) specifications: the ability to not only understand and interpret voice commands, but carry out tasks ranging from factory assembly to grocery shopping. Musk has announced that a universal basic income will be necessary to support the people unemployed by his imagined product.
While claims of this magnitude are pretty rare, the bones of the scenario are pretty universal: the boss overpromises on a product that the actual development team knows will be impossible to roll out by the deadline. So what do you do when your boss overcommits your team to building, say, a fully-autonomous robot that can work at Amazon in one year?
Allison Green of Ask A Manager has advice for pushing back on a boss’s decision. “A good boss does want to know when you disagree with something, especially if you feel strongly and especially if you have information or context she might not have considered,” Green says. She says to consider whether you have information that your boss doesn’t have that might make them reconsider, or when a course of action might have consequences that your boss isn’t aware of yet. Executive coach Daneen Skube also says that you can put the onus on your boss to give you the roadmap to achieving what they’ve come up with. “Don’t let your boss get away with platitudes and grand concepts,” she says. “Keep looking confused as you query him about how to implement his noble goals.”
Green and Skube agree that if your boss decides to keep overpromising, your chances of dissuading them are limited, and you should consider the importance of the issue to you. If you work at a company, for example, that has a history of pushing nonviable products, within that company culture it might not be possible as an individual to “manage up” by correcting your boss--especially if your boss is known to take criticism poorly. An individual who continues to vocally disagree after the boss has shut that disagreement down could come across as hostile, even if their concerns are valid and serious.
When a boss is unlikely to respond well to one person pushing back, another choice is to push back as a group. Green has specific suggestions for how to handle that. She says the important thing is to make sure that you and the rest of your group are on the same page about it, and to address the boss together, rather than appointing a spokesperson. It’s also worth remembering that a particularly self-aggrandizing or hostile boss might try to divide and conquer--it might be worth practicing the conversation beforehand, with one of your coworkers playing the boss.
And finally: if your company routinely overpromises and fails publicly, it might be worth looking for a new job. No amount of prestige is worth the headache of having a boss who chronically oversells and then makes it your problem when the product can’t live up to the hype.