Correcting a Superior

  • Published
  • By SSgt Christopher J. McCoy
  • 501 CSW/EO

"There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction."- President John F. Kennedy.

This message could not have been delivered any clearer, especially concerning military ethos. Even though the speech had political intentions, President Kennedy’s military background probably inspired him to make that statement.

We all know humans are subject to error, so mistakes in our lives and lines of duty are expected to occur. The challenge arises when a superior makes an error and the only person who has noticed the error is a subordinate. For example, when a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (SNCO) makes a mistake that only an Airmen First Class (A1C) notices, as the subordinate, the A1C may face several challenges such as fear. Fear at this stage stems from the fact that the subordinate wants to challenge the mistake made by the superior.

Secondly, hierarchy can be rigid, meaning some superiors may not take the correction lightly.

Lastly, choices have consequences, which means the option of correcting a superior might have harsh effects on the subordinate, or display an act of "bravery" amongst their peers.

To ensure the subordinate corrects the superior politely, he/she shall undertake the following steps:

First, do your homework. Correcting a superior is not something anyone should do if one is not sure of the correction he/she wants to make. To ensure they do not make a fool of themselves, they should determine with certainty that the superior has in fact made a mistake before they begin correcting the individual.

Additionally, prepare a solution that is backed with data (i.e. regulations, AFIs, etc...). This would show initiative to move beyond the mistake and focus on the correction. Provide the solution in a way that does not outsmart the superior but contributes to his/her perspective.

Then, evaluate your motives. This evaluation should cross-check the intentions of the correction to ensure the purpose is not to nitpick on the superior. Correcting a superior with ulterior motives might backfire on the subordinate making the correction. This may destroy the reputation of that individual. Furthermore, cross-checking serves to detect if the mistake made is negligible enough to allow the person to continue on with his/her day or if it is critical enough to correct the mistake that has been made.

The most critical step after doing your homework and evaluating the motives is to try to identify a sweet spot to correct the superior. This step requires precision, which is fundamental in a military setting, to time it right. The best time to discuss with a superior is when he/she is not in a setting which could potentially put the individual on the spot. Correct the superior professionally and in a respectful way without disregarding their rank or position.

For instance, one can interrupt the conversation by saying, "Sir/Ma’am, before you go on, I would like to comment on..." and then speak with the individual while maintaining eye contact with the superior to illustrate sincerity in the correction. The key to treading carefully in these types of situations is to have situational awareness of your language and to choose your tone carefully.

Another way to reduce conflict between the superior and yourself is to use the collaborative approach. This move will encourage collaboration between the two of you. Lastly, accept whatever outcome that will transpire. There is a likelihood that you may fail to convince the superior you are correcting, therefore you should not insist on your point but bow out peacefully.