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I work in software industry as a developer. My boss sometimes makes small mistakes when assigning tasks or reporting bugs. For example, he recently reported a bug caused by a virus on his computer to the bug tracking system.

Usually, I explain why his request is impossible and provide some data backing up my point, which starts a discussion (him criticizing data / logic of the point, me defending it). This part is always a bit difficult because he used to be a developer, and doesn't like to think that he can misunderstand the technical part of my work.

My problem is that at some point in the discussion, he comes to realize that I'm right, but doesn't want to feel like he's losing either, and ends up asking me to do something half way (as in: "fine, there is a virus on my computer, but our users might have the same virus on their computers, so I want you to make our software compatible with it").

Most of the time, this ends up in useless work and wasted time, as the piece of work is soon forgotten, never tested and never maintained. In this specific case, the patch I made was never added to the codebase and simply thrown away.

Is there a way to tell people they're wrong without making them feel like they're in a battle they have to win?

EDIT: To clarify, I started the virus issue because my boss' computer has direct access to all servers, and therefore some critical data could be lost.

12 Answers 12

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My boss is usually right, so I rarely have to do this, but try to frame it positively, and not confrontationally. Make it THEIR decision, rather than making it sound like "not my problem".

Example:

"After doing research, I was unable to replicate this on a test machine. Should I continue to pursue this specific problem, or do I have higher priorities right now?"

This allows your boss to really make the decision without framing it as a "me against you" type of problem.

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    This sounds like a reasonable approach, and I actually opened the conversation with something like that, but "I was unable to replicate" started the whole argument. – DistantEcho Jun 4 '13 at 20:18
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    @Niphra perhaps you could ask the boss to show you himself if you're unable to do it? The trick is to put as much responsibility for showing the bug in his hands, without accusing him of being wrong. – Codeman Jun 4 '13 at 20:25
  • Oh, I see, I will try this next time then. – DistantEcho Jun 4 '13 at 20:27
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    The problem with this is that you look like you're falling into the "works on my machine" trap. He sees the incorrect behavior in the software, so it's very easy to think that it's obviously a problem with the software that must be fixed; your inability to reliably reproduce it thus just means you didn't try hard enough. I see it all the time with "end users" in management positions that, at some point in their career, had Visual Studio installed on their work computer and therefore "used to be developers". – KeithS Jun 5 '13 at 21:39
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    @KeithS yes, but an easy way to reduce the risk of this is to get one or more other machines to fail to replicate the issue. If the manager is an asshole who refuses to accept responsibility, you can't do a lot about that. This is the best solution to a tough communication problem. – Codeman Jun 5 '13 at 23:45
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Executive Summary

Is there a way to tell people they're wrong without making them feel like they're in a battle they have to win?

No, there isn't.

When you focus on someone being wrong rather than solving the problem, you are inviting conflict. And if you are the one firing the first shot, asking how you can convince the other person to stop the fighting is putting the cart before the horse.

Perspective

Your previous post from April last year was asking when to look for your first job. I presume this is your first full-time job, and that you are still young (in your early 20s). Welcome to the working world -- as a new graduate/employee you are likely to be filled with youthful vim and vigor, but lacking in a bit of the practical perspective that comes with age and experience.

This entire question strikes me as a case where a lack of perspective has you digging yourself a hole you'll spend the next couple of years peering out of without understanding how you found yourself there.

"Mistakes"

My boss sometimes makes small mistakes ... he recently reported a bug caused by a virus on his computer to the bug tracking system.

You take this as a premise of your entire post. That these are "mistakes". Why?

Was the product working properly? No.

Was it unable to be reproduced? No.

That makes it a bug. A low-priority bug perhaps. A bug that shouldn't be fixed perhaps. But it certainly is a bug since the presence of something else on the machine caused your product not to work.

So why is it a mistake?

I am going to guess that you likely tie your shoes wrong quite often. Does that mean I should spend 5 minutes every morning lecturing you on how you are making small mistakes? Should I imply you are stubborn and/or incompetent?

Of course not. That would make me a jerk of Olympic caliber. So perhaps it isn't wise to do the equivalent to your boss over this?

Business is People

At the heart of any business are people. Us flawed human creations are prone to flights of whimsy, fickleness, defensiveness, and all sorts of other not-so-appealing characteristics. But there is hardly a job in the world that can be done with no contact with other people.

What age and experience brings most people is an understanding of the simple principle:

Business is People

Since people are these moody fickle creatures, it is best to avoid taking actions that will unleash that fickleness in full force.

So when our boss comes to us with a bug we may find dubious, we don't present data showing the boss explaining why they are objectively an idiot. We find ways to tactfully get the result we want without stomping on other people's toes. The Golden Rule applies to the office -- do not do unto others as you would not want done unto you.

In other words, "Don't be a jerk".

How to tackle the situation

First and foremost, try to understand the other person's point of view.

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” - Henry Ford

Your boss did what he did for a reason. That reason is not to make your life miserable. Rather than coming to the conclusion that he screwed up, why don't you take a far more human-friendly approach like asking him a simple question?

Hey boss, you registered this bug yesterday but I'm a little unclear on the details of what the issue is. Could you walk me through your thought process?

If it's a simple mistake, your boss will realize (while walking himself through his logic) that he made a mistake, and that should make it easy for him to take back the bug or otherwise fix his request. If it isn't a simple mistake, you now understand what he wants and what his logic is.

After he tells you what his logic is, don't respond with anything but a "Thank you." Take it back to your desk, think it over, and if you can find a better solution to the issue than the one he requested, bring it over to your boss.

Hey boss, you explained that you were running in to this bug. I tracked down the cause to X. Fixing X would require 60 man-hours, and would only help roughly 0.002% of our users. Should we go ahead with fixing X, or should we work on Y which is an issue for 30% of our users instead?

Can you see the difference? You are legitimately listening to his concerns, asking for him to make the decisions he is paid to make, and presenting him with information that will nudge him in the direction you want. You aren't telling him he made a mistake, or throwing data on why he is wrong at him, or otherwise digging yourself in to a hole.

In general, for any issue you may run in to where you think that the other person is being silly, take a step back, realize business is people, and:

  1. Clarify: Ask the other person to walk you through their thought process
  2. Listen: Don't formulate an argument, just listen and thank them
  3. Consider: Give it a good thought from both perspectives and come up with a solution
  4. Suggest: Present the information so the other person can feel like they own the solution (even if it's doing what you wanted to do anyway)
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    -1 for having to scroll back up to vote on this answer. ;) – a CVn Jun 5 '13 at 9:06
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    Sadface: I can only upvote this answer once. This question and your answer should be mandatory reading for everyone 1 month into every new job. – Chris K Jun 5 '13 at 17:02
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    Beautiful, experienced answers like these are the very reason that StackExchange is doing so well. Wish I could upvote again. – Ben H Jun 6 '13 at 14:52
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    I think I might have badly expressed myself; I didn't start the argument because I wanted the bug removed from the tracker, but because his computer has access to all servers, and the virus put in danger critical data like sources or customer informations. The "you are wrong" was implied in the "your computer is infected". – DistantEcho Jun 6 '13 at 16:43
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    I think you may have badly expressed yourself to your boss as well, and in general shouldn't be starting arguments. If his computer is infected, is that your job? I sincerely doubt it. The content of my post really still applies -- you are being combative, and really shouldn't. You should understand his perspective and then fix the problem rather than picking fights. – jmac Jun 6 '13 at 23:25
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You need to present arguments in such a way that people do not start getting defensive about their ideas. Generally, ideas do not belong to people, but for some reason people do get attached to them and find it offensive when they are attacked.

The way I do it with the difficult ones is I guide them with pointed questions, so that they feel that they arrive at the conclusions themselves, and that I am not trying to challenge them in any way.

Say your bug is caused by an anti-virus. You say 'Hmm, I can't reproduce this bug, and the only thing I see different between our machines is the way that your anti-virus is configured, do you think this could explain it?' -> Bam, the manager has an avenue to look smart and say 'Oh yes, anti-viruses are known to trigger bla bla bla. Don't worry about it'. Assuming they still don't say that and insist that it's a real bug, then you say something like "Well, I am pretty confident that this is caused by an anti-virus configuration, and the steps I could take to mitigate are X, while this would only work in Y circumstance and be easily broken by Z. We could certainly do this, is it worth it to pursue this?" -> Another chance for your manager to look smart and say "No. This looks like too much work for a fickle fix, we need to keep our eye on the priorities."

If you stick by this modified Socratic Method, you won't make people defensive. But, do keep in mind that it won't stop consistently stupid people from making consistently stupid decisions

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    What you may also find after saying "the only thing I see different between our machines is the way that your anti-virus is configured, do you think this could explain it?" is that you never hear back, and when asking them later how things are going they say "It just started working without me changing anything" because they'd rather not admit that was it. ;-) – Frerich Raabe Jun 4 '13 at 19:46
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    +1 for the suggestion of asking leading questions that eventually leads to your boss to come to the same conclusion on his own. That is typically how I try to handle this kind of situation, as its much easier for someone to say "You bring up a very good point which leads me to realize XYZ, so this isn't necessary" as opposed to "I'm wrong, you're right, this isn't necessary.' – Rachel Jun 4 '13 at 20:49
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    As any old ranch hand will tell you: You can't make the bull do what you want. What you have to do is convince the bull that what you want was his idea to start with. Most managers have a great many bovine characteristics. That's why they turn their head and look at you with one eye when they're trying to make decisions. – Wesley Long Jun 5 '13 at 3:32
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I'd venture to guess that part of the problem lies in how the response is worded, but he sounds like a difficult manager in general (with the trifecta of going into the issue with a "the developers did something wrong" attitude, feeling the need to "manage" people, and having been a programmer himself).

I'd make sure that the responses are worded such that it's clear that the issue does not lie with your software, but with an external environmental factor. Make sure you have a hard and fast rule that if you can't duplicate the "bug", then you can't fix it, so that way you're not wasting time and money chasing after phantom bugs. As a (former) programmer, he should know that Heisenbugs are bad.

You can approach it a couple of different ways, and which way you choose will depend on your company culture, and your own social skills.

  1. The real-life equivalent of the Jedi mind trick. Or, the subversive way. As Pheonixblade9 said, make it seem like the decision to drop the matter is in his hands. Put the idea in his head that it really isn't something you can fix.

  2. Put your foot down. This is best done if you have a policy in place that can back you, but it's still possible if you have enough charisma (it also works best if you company doesn't expect "yes men") and have already shown that the evidence clearly points to an environmental issue. Simply put - "no, this is directly caused by the virus you have on your system. No, we're not going to fix it." People are often scared of the people in the position of management, and, therefore, scared to tell them no or otherwise stand up to them. However, if they value you at all, and you're not a complete dick about it, then the odds of harm coming from putting your foot down about something are actually relatively slim.

  3. Talk to him and/or his manager. I'm not talking about "tattling" or trying to get him in trouble or whatever. Try talking with him outside of the context of a bug report and explain how you're feeling he's approaching the issues, and how he's hurting productivity (and possibly even morale) by it. If that doesn't work, or you don't feel comfortable approaching him directly, try talking to his manager, or an equal-level manager. The idea here would be to get some specific advice from a neutral third-party that may be able to sway the manager. Show them the tickets, so they can see the discussions, and see if the approach is in line with the company culture that they're going for. If they agree that he's being overly pushy, see if they can talk with him about it and get him to back off a little bit.

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    I like Put your foot down, but I wouldn't talk to his manager, unless things go out of control. – BЈовић Jun 4 '13 at 19:29
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    #3 sounds really dangerous. If you're talking about him to other people behind his back, he's likely to interpret that badly even if you handle it in the best possible way. And once that dam is broken (and he feels free, if not a necessity, to talk about you behind your back) then you're in for a flood of problems. – iconoclast Jun 4 '13 at 23:05
  • It depends entirely on the culture at the company. In some companies, it's encouraged to talk to someone about the situation. In others, it's not. – Shauna Jun 6 '13 at 15:11
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Stop treating the relationship and interaction as a competition that can be 'won or lost'.

There is but a very small and fleeting satisfaction in being 'right'. There are times to battle for 'right', too; but I would guess they aren't really as frequent or as significant as the contention occurs.

Even if you win 99 times, you aren't really any better off than if you won only once, and more than likely on that 100th battle, someone else who is more strongly entrenched will grant you the opportunity to be successful somewhere else.

You might have a few tricks or methods that work better (either quicker, more efficiently, or more consistently); but their way probably works, too. Let it go at that point. As they are the boss, it is not necessarily your responsibility to correct or improve them. If they want to track things that are rarely of consequence, let them. If they want to do it the hard way, let them. If they want you to get lunch with them and you travel to the destination by only going straight or taking right turns, when one left turn would have done it, don't complain. Perhaps they were pre-occupied, or wanted the exercise, or had some other method for the madness.

Save the battle for when you need it.

Start using some of the techniques mentioned throughout this topic; especially the one that acknowledges their position, but lightly suggests an alterative not as a statement, but as a question. For example:

You mentioned this fact and that fact, and I think because of those two facts we can infer something like so-on-and-so-forth, especially if we also knew such-and-such. Do you think that is possible, or does that make any sense? What do you know of such-and-such in this case? Does it exist or apply?

Do this not only when you suspect, but especially when you know that "such-and-such" is the case. Lead them to the answer. Don't stab them with the answer.

Or, when they suggest a technique or strategy, and you know it doesn't fit, and you know why, instead of informing them of error, suggest the following:

That would make the solution to the problem fairly straightforward, do you know of any caveats or gotchas with that technique that might apply in this situation; or should I research it a bit more before doing it?

Since you already have a pretty good idea, any effort you need to 'report' on the matter will be fairly minimal in most cases.

Well, this source had oh-my to say about such-and-such, and another source had gee-whiz to say about it. I am inclined to believe this so far, but what do you think?

This will leave you free to present a more preferred alternative that would work without necessarily stomping on his original plan by relying on a 'petty' reason.

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These sorts of situations, whether they are with your boss or anyone else, are almost always caused by both sides.

In a discussion, there can be a tendency to have a "struggle" between the dominant and submissive position. (There are many variations; sometimes a person will approach you with a submissive position, attempting to compel you to take a dominant position, for example.)

When your boss presents you with the problem to fix, he is being dominant, and trying to get you to be submissive by listening to his request. When you notice that what he requested makes no sense, you also try for the dominant position, and try to get him to submit to your position. The interaction will then boil down to who can be more dominant, and who will submit first. (Additionally, since he's your boss, he has a bit of an advantage in a struggle for dominance.)

These kinds of "games" can be avoided by either side by refusing to take either a dominant or submissive position, and instead taking a position of equality and neutrality. Pheonixblade9's answer contains a good example of a response that is neither dominant nor submissive, but neutral and egalitarian.

Well, to be honest, it does sound a little like it's trying to semi-sarcastically imply that "you're wasting my time", which is the kind of thing to avoid. Other than that it's a good response.

Rather than sarcastically implying that your time is being wasted, explicitly outline the costs and benefits involved. Explain the situation honestly and clearly, and let your boss make the decision. Basically, it's your job to make sure your boss is as well-informed as he can be, but it's your boss's job to make the decision. If you've made it clear that a choice is stupid, and he understands that it's stupid, and why it's stupid, and chooses it anyway, then you have no choice but to implement his decision.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transactional_analysis

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    A nice first post, welcome to the site! – Rhys Jun 5 '13 at 10:09
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I would suggest as well that you allow him to make the decision and then accept it. If I don't agree with my boss about something, but he's made the decision, well, that is his job and mine is to implement what he wants. To continue to push the matter will erode our working relationship. You can present the choices along with the pros/cons as well as possible effects on your schedule and request clarification of priorities, but once you have the answer, don't keep asking the question in hopes of getting a different answer.

If you want to re-visit an issue, do it respectfully. I'd bring an estimate of the effort required to implement the boss's request. Present the work as objectively as possible, not calling it "your request" but label it in a non-accusatory manner. "I've put together what I think is an implementation for being compatible with the virus. I think it will take 2 weeks to implement, with an on-going cost of maintenance of N days per year. Is this something you want me to work on and if so, where do you want it in my priority list?" I'd also have a list of the current tasks and their priorities so it's clear what the effect may be to my overall schedule, deadlines, milestones, etc. At this point, if the boss still wants it done, I'd suck it up and shut up and do the work.

HTH

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    Hi Janene, welcome to The Workplace! I think the point of the question is how to revisit the issue respectfully. The points you make don't necessarily result in a solution to the problem. Is there more you could possibly add to help the asker conclude this in a way that satisfies both parties? Thanks again for contributing! :) – jmort253 Jun 6 '13 at 3:44
  • Hi jmort253. I don't know that the OP wanted to revisit necessarily. I read the question as to how to try to formulate his reply at the point of original discussion. As I put in my reply, continuing to push on an answer you don't like may erode the working relationship. I'll add to my answer for re-visiting, however. – Janene Pappas Jun 6 '13 at 20:53
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I'd suggest (and this seems to apply for any discussion/exchange of ideas which approach conflict or disagreement; boss, spouse, manager.... who, at times, are one in the same)...

  1. Do your best to acknowledge their point of view and try to empathize; really empathize. Try rephrasing or summarizing the notion/statement. Be human; this is the beginning of disarming a potential bomb.
  2. Gauge their response: a) if confirmation/affirmation of #1, then proceed to #3. b) If taken poorly, you might want to defuse the subject altogether. At this point, the issue at hand may be more "feeling" oriented and have nothing to do with the issue. Logic will not apply and you'll need to rely on being human more.
  3. "Suggest" your answer/solution. That is, state your solution or idea as a question. E.g. "...could xyz be the case, are we completely sure it's abc?" You may in fact be the wrong one, so communicate diplomatically, without being too sold on yourself. Even a fool appears wise in his own eyes.

Your boss means well and beneath it all, there is an intention, an idea, they deem worth pushing. So be human. Remember, no one is responsible for pissing you off, that's entirely your responsibility. Cheers.

  • "Rely on being human more" , "be human"-- What do you mean by this? – Rhys Jun 5 '13 at 10:02
  • Sorry, I should clarify, what I meant by "be human" is essentially... try not to be an a$$. I just didn't want to word it that way. The nature of the question/situation requires a diplomatic approach, one that could benefit from being civilized and disarming a conflict. Thing is, arguing or challenging each other's opinions is healthy (and should be encouraged), but this didn't sound like that kind of situation. – martenc Jun 5 '13 at 22:57
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There is a quote: "Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance."

The definition of 'Knowledge' is 'that which is perceived'!"

That which is perceived by the unique individual Perspective is 'knowledge'. All we can 'know' is what we perceive.

'Ignorance' is that which is not perceived, at any particular moment, by any particular unique perspective!

You both can be right from your own prospective. Be careful of egos. Ego declares 'rightness' which gives rise to 'wrongness', and everyone knows that 'I' cannot be 'wrong'.. etc...

That being said, a healthy discussion with your boss is always appropriate. Proceed with professionalism, without an ego. Do not discount that he could be right from his perspective. Always use your experiences to express your point of view.

Example:

"It has been my experience that..."

You are not accusing him of being wrong. You are only showing him what you know from your perspective. Thus, this gives him an opportunity to share with you his experience from his point of view. This discussion will allow you and your boss to discover the truth.

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In this specific scenario, you may not actually need to prove your boss is wrong. Instead, this could perhaps be resolved by prioritizing issues.

Are you using an issue tracking system? If so, put this in the system and set the priority of it lower. The manager can decide if other things are more important than this issue or not. Often times issues that seem important at first move down the priority chain and end up never getting fixed and that's fine.

Years ago I remember hearing stories of how Microsoft Word was shipped with 30,000 bugs in it. At the time I thought that was interesting. Now that I've gained some experience it doesn't surprise me at all. There are many low priority bugs in software and if you tried to fix them all you would be ruined mentally and financially.

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    Hi Sarel, welcome to The Workplace! +1 on taking an indirect approach to solving this particular problem in a non-confrontational way! I edited this a bit for you as I'm not sure it was clear to others that you were answering the question. You were, but just using a slightly different approach. Hope this helps! :) – jmort253 Jun 6 '13 at 3:31
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Can I recommend you read Dale Carnegies' "How to win friends and influence people"

Here's a PDF of the 1936 edition.

Essentially he discusses the ways to get people round to your way of thinking - besides thinking quick on your feet and being able to answer any question thrown at you, think psychologically how do I approach this? Body language? Tone of voice? The content will come next...

In his first three chapters, Carnegie discusses 3 ways to influence people (Sorry you'll have to read the book for the rest!)

1 - "If You Want to Gather Honey, Don't Kick Over the Beehive" This section is all about the lack of criticism and viewing things from other people's standpoint. The story about Lincoln is fantastic and summarises with "It taught him an invaluable lesson in the art of dealing with people. Never again did he write an insulting letter. Never again did he ridicule anyone. And from that time on, he almost never criticized anybody for anything."

2 - The Big Secret of Dealing with People Adversely to criticism, generate appreciation for the other (not flattery - Carnegie specifically notes that this is not what he intends to communicate) but appreciate that your boss too has a solution and that what you're suggesting is a hybrid of the two solutions (as an example)

3 - "He Who Can Do This Has the Whole World with Him. He Who Cannot, Walks a Lonely Way" "There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything. Did you ever stop to think of that? Yes, just one way. And that is by making the other person want to do it."

So in your discussion with your boss, why not explain the benefits of doing things for him as a person and you (collectively) as a business?

-4

I understand both sides of this coin with my experience, having been on both sides and performing well through exchanges as yours.

What you do is this: Entertain your boss as much as possible, and be ever present to hear what he is saying no matter how "wrong" you believe he is. Then to the best of your ability, go ahead and perform the tasks to his wishes while incorporating the procedures to relieve him of this issue and other issues that may arise.

Remember to be humble and bite the tongue of arrogance or in your case "Hubris" when dealing with bosses. It's much more impressive to exalt your boss and compliment their weaknesses rather than point them out.

There is an analogy I love here that is ever appropriate. It is in the Batman movies. Alfred is Batmans able assistant. He is however the wiser and providing both service and mentorship along the way. Alfred doesnt say "Hey your wrong" but rather provide a desirable alternative. And when Batman is in distress over a loss of a love he thought would come to him before she dies, Alfred withholds the note from her instead, withholding the truth. Alfred knows how to handle his boss with care. Work is love and love is work my friend so love what you do. Good luck.

  • This is me above but screwed up on answering the question when logged out. They gave me a new user # . Sry and thanks for asking – user9325 Jun 4 '13 at 21:19
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    Ummm, respect is earned, at least here in America it is. Maybe in other countries it's normal to show a great deal of respect for people in authority, but in this case OP works for a dim manager. When that happens, it's time to sharpen the old toolkit and start looking for a new job. Eventually upper management will hopefully see how this guy can't keep talented engineers on his team, and maybe the true root of the problem will be exposed. – Adam Rackis Jun 4 '13 at 21:52
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    Alfred is also stuck in a boring job, working night and days, without any family or friends because he spends his life taking care of Batman. He doesn't seem to have any ambition or interest in life. I have no interest in becoming Alfred. – DistantEcho Jun 4 '13 at 22:53
  • Hey @user9325 I edited your answer to take out some of the more subjective stuff to focus on the actionable advice you gave. If you think I took something important out, please feel free to edit it back in. – jmac Jun 5 '13 at 7:41

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