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Saying no to the boss: Why it’s essential

FORTUNE – We all know the feeling: the boss has given us an unpleasant task we may not even agree with but ultimately have to perform. Many times, these orders are essential to making a company run. But not always. And sometimes they seem plain wrong.

In those cases, companies ultimately benefit when a subordinate speaks up, according to James Detert, a management professor at Cornell’s Johnson school. But right when their input is needed most, many employees lose their voice. “In the vast majority of cases where companies end up with whistleblowing-level disasters, almost always we can trace them back to an early conversation where somebody tried to communicate directly up the chain and couldn’t or were so afraid to do so that they let it pile up,” he says.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to push against powerful people. But employees often have resources to empower themselves that they may not recognize.

Every whistleblowing-level disaster comes with its unique combination of communication and cultural mishaps. After the 2010 BP oil spill, it came to light that the company had a systemic problem with reporting safety issues up the chain. A rogue trader at UBS (UBS) is currently on trial in London on charges that he acted illegally when he made trades that lost the bank over $2 billion in 2011. Yet, he was probably part of a corporate culture that encouraged risky bets and big returns.

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Some organizations penalize staffers for speaking out. At the same time, plenty of executives claim they want to encourage an “open culture,” Detert says. Managers can take several steps to pull this off, but in the meantime, there are a couple of ways all employees can protect themselves from a boss forcing their hand.

The first step is to question the nature of power at work. We may think power is directly related to job titles, but it’s more nuanced than that. “Power really resides in one’s dependence on somebody else, and their dependence on you in the other direction,” says Adam Kleinbaum, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Subordinates can increase their power in a couple of ways, he suggests. “One is by doing excellent work that makes them completely indispensable to the manager.” The second is to reduce dependence on that manager by developing a broad network, including peers and mentors. When a manager makes an ethically gray request, an employee can use his or her allies as backup to deflect it.

All of us who have bosses could benefit by thinking about the origin of our ideas about power. Many of us have set beliefs about how executives and managers behave regardless of how they actually act, according to a 2011 study co-authored by Detert that was published in the Academy of Management Journal. After interviewing 190 people at a tech company, the researchers found that many demonstrated what’s called “implicit” — or non-evidence-based, yet deep-rooted — beliefs. Those included the idea that voicing an opinion different from the manager’s would seem like a challenge to his or her ability, even if employees had seen evidence to the contrary.

“There seems to be some really silly notion that if we don’t all pretend that managers know more, then the whole hierarchy would all crumble down,” Detert says.

Managers who want to create an open culture first have to work to overcome how their employees naturally understand power. In fact, people who consider themselves powerful may unintentionally give off signals that they aren’t open to another perspective, according to a 2012 study by Professor Shirli Kopelman at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. In the study, participants viewed pictures of deans from various schools. Without any information about where the deans work, people said that those from higher-ranked universities seemed less cooperative than those from lower-ranked universities. Furthermore, when asked how they would negotiate funding, participants generally said they would ask for less money from the deans from higher-ranked universities.

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The upshot, Kopelman suggests, is that highly ranked people might exude dominance, which others can interpret as a lack of cooperation.

We are probably hard-wired to respond to dominance this way, suggests a 2009 paper published in Research in Organizational Behavior titled “Silenced by fear: The nature, sources and consequences of fear at work.” Humans who could pick up cues from dominant group members had an advantage over those who couldn’t, the report suggests. And modern humans are raised in hierarchies: parents have more power in families, and teachers in schools. By the time we enter the workforce, most of us are conditioned to do what we are told.

Managers aiming to get the best out of their workers have to combat all of this.

“You have to decrease the perceived risk of speaking up, you have to increase the perceived rewards of speaking up, and you have to increase the cost of silence,” Detert says. “In other words, you have to be a company where people would say that the worst thing you could be is be a ‘yes man,’ ” because companies are stronger when employees have the power to say “no.”