Imagine this: Your boss announces a new plan to reorganize the office, specifically, where people sit and work, to improve collaboration and work flow among team members. You listen as she talks, but the more you hear, the worse you think her idea is. As you nod your head, your brain is screaming: “This will grind work to a halt! I won’t be able to focus in a completely open space next to my chattiest colleagues!”
So, what do you do: Do you tell your supervisor you disagree or let it slide?
No one wants to get on the boss’ bad side, but there are worse things than speaking up. Like, not speaking up at all when you know your boss is about to make a fool of himself because he didn’t have all the facts.
Almost every boss-employee relationship is influenced by a set of unspoken, unwritten agreements. One of the strongest for managers is this one: “I will never fault my employee for correcting me if doing so keeps me from looking stupid to my boss.”
Learning to disagree with your superior without insulting him or her is among the most important job skills you’ll ever learn. In fact, it might even get you promoted! It’s just important to keep these two things in mind before you do it:
1. Take Ego Out of the Equation
It’s important to make a distinction between when you disagree with your boss because he or she doesn’t have all of the facts or because it’s a matter of opinion. If he’s an expert on the subject and you’re not, don’t lead by saying you disagree. Instead, ask your supervisor to explain his thinking. First, this shows that you allow for the possibility that it’s your lack of knowledge at play. Second, you may learn something new. And third, if you still disagree, at least you’ll have all of the information.
Say you fall into that third category: it’s purely a matter of opinion, but you’re still certain your way is better. How should you proceed?
To start, ask yourself: “Is disagreeing about this worth it?” If it doesn’t influence you, won’t make your boss look stupid, or won’t do harm to anyone (most especially the customer) let it slide. For example, even if you think you shouldn’t serve the exact same lunch at every board meeting, the board members aren’t coming for the food, so it’s not the end of the world.
2. Consider the Consequences
But sometimes, letting it slide isn’t an option. (For example, if your boss suggests cutting a small aspect of your program—that you know is much-loved by clients.) Start by asking open-ended questions. Try: “Would you be open to a suggestion for a different way to approach this?” or simpler still: “Can I toss out a different idea?” If he or she says, “no,” let it go. It’s a good indication that he or she wouldn’t be receptive to your approach anyhow.
It’s also important to weigh the consequences of what will happen if you don’t speak up. The more serious the consequence, the more important it is for you to be adamant and willing to risk over-stepping.
Begin by explaining your intentions and then share your opinion. I once watched a friend who was a project manager on a big job with millions of dollars at stake patiently (and repeatedly) explain to her client that if they didn’t do something the way she was suggesting, her client risked losing a lot of money. She started with: “I make it a rule to not disagree with my clients unless I know they’re suggesting something that will cost them more than they want to spend—this is one of those times.” From there, she shared her opinion. You could take this same approach with your boss if you foresaw consequences to her proposed plan.
Finally, don’t think that the facts of an argument will speak for themselves—they rarely do. Decisions and disagreements are human actions and are therefore always subject to human emotions. You don’t have to sing Kumbaya or try to be overly nice, but it’s important to take emotions and feelings into account when you’re disagreeing with someone, especially if that person happens to be your boss.
The constant in Jim's career has been teaching and preparing people at all levels to be better leaders. He started his career working with kids in the wilderness, and today works as a speaker, facilitator, author and educator working on he calls "people centered leadership" for organizations around the world. He is a principal for Moementum, Inc., a global boutique training consultancy and serves as adjunct faculty for a variety of leadership programs including the American Leadership Forum, Duke University and Virginia Tech. Read more of his writing on the Moementum Blog or follow him on Twitter @jmorris_jim.More from this Author