Flee, fight, or freeze? How to know when it’s time to stand up to your boss

Boss shouting at worker
Experts agree that not every battle with your boss is worth fighting.
ljubaphoto—Getty Images

In the moments after your boss shouts at you in front of your peers, demands you do something way beyond your job scope, or acts inappropriately, workers face a simple—but tough—question: Should I flee, fight, or freeze?

There can be considerable benefits to standing up for yourself, “including a less stressful work environment, a better relationship with your boss, and improved lines of communication,” career coach Dr. Kyle Elliott tells Fortune.

However, in the current economic climate, where employers are announcing cutbacks and mass layoffs, it might feel like speaking out will put a target on your back if executives have to cull the workforce.

That’s why it’s important to choose wisely which battles are worth bringing to your boss’s attention.

“Not every disagreement or frustration is worth addressing and bringing up too many concerns at once can actually muddy the waters,” cautions Ros Taylor, a clinical psychologist, corporate and leadership coach, and professor at Strathclyde University.

It’s a dilemma that her clients are often stuck mulling over.

Thankfully, Taylor and Elliott have some sage advice on knowing when it is the right time to confront your boss—and how to put your neck on the line with minimum damage.

Assess the situation and your feelings

In the immediate aftermath of a brush with your boss, the danger is taking it too personally and having an outburst.

“Then we’re frightened that if we speak, we either burst into tears or scream,” Taylor says while highlighting that no matter how angry you feel, “the main thing is to keep your cool when dealing with a boss.”

So in order to calmly collect yourself (and avoid saying something you might regret), it’s important to first have some objectivity. 

Taylor suggests ranking how you feel, how often it happens, and how important this problem is for you to voice on a scale of 1-10. 

“If it’s up there, and it’s happening all the time, and it’s a particularly bad one at an eight, nine or a 10, then you’ve got to deal with that,” she insists. But if after assessing the situation and how you feel, you realize that it ranks fairly lowly then it could point to the boss simply having a bad day.

“Sometimes it’s not always about you,” Taylor says. From the boss’s problems at home to a talking down from their own superior, “there could be all sorts of things that might be going on in their lives and unfortunately, you stood in the way in that particular moment.”

Timing is key

“While deciding when to confront your boss is a personal choice, it’s often easier to bring up individual concerns as they arise, rather than waiting weeks, months, or even years, then presenting a laundry list of concerns,” Elliott says.

Take note that this still doesn’t mean standing your ground in the heat of the moment. But if you feel strongly about something, it’s better to nip it in the bud sooner rather than letting issues bubble up until you reach breaking point.

A good amount of time to give yourself to let your anger subside without missing your window of opportunity to speak up about the issue is generally up to a week after it took place. But at the very least, Taylor suggests giving yourself a night to calm down and practice what you want to say.

Plus you’ll want to think about timing. The last thing you want to do is aggravate your manager while they’re in the middle of preparing for an important presentation that’s due the next day. 

“If you have a weekly or biweekly one-on-one with your manager, this can be a good place to air your grievances,” Elliott suggests, meanwhile Taylor suggests you ask yourself: Is this the right time to rock boats?

The DESC method

To avoid getting into a heated emotional debate and playing the blame game—where it’s unlikely you’ll come out on top—it’s better to stick to facts and lay out how that made you feel. 

“If you do choose to confront your manager, be sure to present them with solutions, not just problems,” Elliot says. “I often encourage clients to be prepared to also point to specific situations that bothered them, as good managers will want concrete examples of where they messed up. But don’t stop there—also share a few options of what would have worked better for you.” 

Similarly, Taylor encourages her clients to create a script using the “DESC” method, which stands for Description, Emotion, Solution and Consequence.

First pin point the situation, describe how it made you feel, then offer a solution of how you would have preferred to be approached or treated, and conclude with the consequence of business remaining as usual. 

For example: “On Friday you undermined me in a chain email and it was very upsetting. In future, if I make a mistake I’d much prefer it if you could pull me aside for a private chat so that I can address it myself with the client or ultimately it will have a knock-on effect on my confidence, as well as how competent I look to others.”

Be prepared for backlash

Whichever way you pitch it, there are inherent risks in standing up to your boss—particularly if they aren’t accustomed to receiving feedback.

One of Taylor’s young clients in the law industry finally had the courage to tell her manager she’d rather he didn’t shout at her. After reciting what she had practiced she was going to say, he looked directly at her and told her to “f*ck off.”

“I felt awful about everything,” Taylor says. “But she actually felt better having said her piece—and good for her because nobody else around did say their piece to this man.”

So before speaking up, first consider what your end goal is.

If it’s simply to say your piece, that’s fine but be aware that it may not result in any behavior changes and could further damage the relationship with your manager.

“If you’re simply looking to vent or point out personality flaws, you’ll likely want to bite your tongue and instead speak with a friend or mentor,” Elliott advises. 

If there is a specific outcome you think can be achieved from confronting your boss, then he suggests testing the waters “by starting with small, bite-sized pieces of feedback” and again, being ready to point to examples and solutions, without getting personal. 

“Ultimately, you can’t predict how your boss will respond to you standing up to them. However, you can increase the chances of them improving by considering how you would want someone to treat you if you were in their shoes,” he adds.

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