How do you deal with a boss who misquotes you?

by Gregory Lay, Heartily WorkingTM columnist

Have your words been twisted?
What did you REALLY say?

From: Misquote Me Not

My boss asks for – but doesn’t listen to – input. He already knows what he wants, so when he asks for our opinions, he’s really looking to have his opinion validated. If you happen to have a different opinion, it doesn’t matter. He hears only what he wants to hear.

Then he says he’s consulted with several people and they’ve agreed with him. Today, he did that to me, and it was just plain not true. I had tried to diplomatically tell him his plan was a bad idea for the client involved, but he told his boss that I had presented a good idea (his idea) and now I’m “on record” as supporting it. And since I supported the idea, I’m responsible for making it succeed.

I can’t just call him out on it – the one person I’ve seen contradict him was quickly gone. Our boss told the president that the person was “dishonest and unstable.” Why does he do this, and how do we deal with this kind of underhanded leadership?


To: Misquoted

Why? He’s either an unethical jerk or a severely limited thinker.

Despite the evidence of his jerkness, since few people deliberately set out to be jerks, it’s constructive to assume that his thinking process is simply too small. That’s good news, because we can help restricted brain capacity grow much more easily than we can teach ethics to a jerk.

Your boss read an article once that said, “to be a good leader, ask for ideas from your team.” So he thinks he’s showing good leadership by asking for your opinions. Sadly, he was too busy to read the entire article, the part where it said, “once you’ve got the team’s ideas, get out of their way and let them lead.”

Instead, he settles for a plan that he understands, and his inflexible brain doesn’t register when somebody’s ideas fall outside his established limits. He isn’t deliberately ignoring you; he just doesn’t hear ideas that originate outside his own head.

How will you deal with it? Run! – either toward the danger, or away from it.

Most people in this situation try to hide. They seek as little contact as possible with somebody who can’t be trusted. But since he’s your boss, it will make you look incompetent to put too much distance between you and the problem.

That leaves deliberately getting closer to the source of your problem. Your smart choice is to get inside his head. You’ve got to understand his thought processes and learn to express your ideas in the same terms that he uses so that he can hear you. Since he only knows how to present his own ideas, an effective person will learn to plant ideas in such a way that he believes they are his own.

Understanding your boss and granting him the kindness of speaking in his language may just give him the safety he needs to relax and actually listen. If you’re “inside his head” you’ll be more effective at proposing course corrections.

Just remember that “Yeah, but…” is poor communication. His ego is ill-equipped to handle differences of opinion. The way to effectively express a concern is, “You’re absolutely right. And would you like to make sure that….?” As long as he can be right, he can change his ideas. The moment an outside opinion makes him wrong, his brain reverts to “Plan A is the only way.”

Why would you want to agree with somebody so disagreeable? Because there’s no profit in disagreeing with somebody who can’t hear your point of view. It will only contribute to your anger and frustration, and those are the wrong tools.

Your boss is a poor politician. A good politician uses fact and motivation to influence others to follow a course of action for their own benefit. A poor politician just tries to convince others that everybody else is already convinced and they should go along because he said so.

You want to be a good politician and use your influence to motivate your boss to believe that it’s safe to listen and let his team lead. Only when he’s that relaxed will it be safe to let him know when he’s forgotten his leadership and is misquoting his team.

If you choose distance

If the closeness strategy won’t work for you, then here are tactics to distance yourself from this dangerous behavior:

Summarize conversations with a follow-up e-mail so that there’s a record of your opinion.

Volunteer for assignments in which he is least involved – and make darn sure those assignments are successful!

Insist on being the one who expresses your opinion. Every time he quotes you (accurately or not), speak up. “I’d really prefer to speak for myself. It helps me keep track of what I’m committed to doing.” Then restate your opinion accurately, giving him credit for having it right in the first place. “As the boss said, I believe…”

Avoid one-on-one conversations – do your best to always have conversations with at least one other witness present.

When you need to confirm his intent, be sure to confirm his accountability in the same sentence. “So I understand you want us to do X, and you will file the final report on the results?” A person who abuses communication with inaccurate quotations will use a clarification as justification for claiming agreement.

Choose your poison

Obviously, these tactics are near opposites, with risks either way. Do you risk get closer to an unreliable person or risk getting so far away you miss important information? People who run to danger are leaders who will make a difference.

Memo from Sun-tzu: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

JobWise: Make it visible.

The more people can see how the job is done, the better they will do the job. When customers are guided with the help of signs, they do a better job of helping themselves. When workers have their processes reinforced by written check-lists, they complete the entire list. When teams write down their goals and see them daily, they keep their focus much better than teams given only verbal reminders.

© 2009 Heartily WorkingTM

Gregory Lay’s Heartily WorkingTM responds to your questions about workplace concerns. Send your questions to