You disagree with your boss. How should you handle it?

Healthy disagreement among colleagues is completely normal and, in my opinion, critical to making a business as strong as it can be. But what if you disagree with your boss? The problem is that disagreements often present two types of holdups:

  1. Many people don’t know how to disagree and still be productive.
  2. Others are afraid to disagree with those in power positions (the boss).

Today I’ll focus on disagreeing with someone in a power position, but the advice applies to any relationship or disagreement. And if done correctly, you can disagree while finding productive solutions and bringing people closer rather than creating further distance.

Harvard Business Review recently covered how to disagree with your boss. They point to Joseph Grenny, coauthor of Crucial Conversations. When asked about why he thinks people shy away from speaking up to a superior when they disagree, Grenny said:

“Our bodies specialize in survival, so we have a natural bias to avoid situations that might harm us.”

I could not agree more. This is the “Flight or Fight” response, which is a big part of the behavioral and psychological research that Approachable Leadership is founded on (stay tuned for the upcoming release of The Approachable Leadership Playbook, where we dive into this idea even further).

As leaders, we have a responsibility to reduce the negative feelings our employees may have if they disagree with us. How can we do that?

  • Invite opposing ideas. Ask for pushback. Leaders must make decisions, but as you and I both know, sometimes we just don’t know. We have to go with our gut or our best guess. When you find that you don’t feel strongly one way or another, open the floor for people to throw out some other ideas. The more you do this, the more you take away the stigma associated with disagreeing with the boss.
  • Ask to be convinced. I do this one often. I’ll have my mind made up. I think I know what the right decision is, and then one brave employee speaks up. Even if their initial suggestion doesn’t move me much, I ask them to go into further detail – “Change my mind,” I’ll say. And you know what? Often, they do. To be a good leader you must want someone else’s idea to be the right idea. For many, this can be a challenge.

What about the flip side? Even bosses have bosses. And, let’s be honest, not all bosses receive opposing viewpoints well. So for those of you who don’t want to let someone else’s issue hold you back from truly investing in your organization and speaking your mind, here are 9 tips to disagree with your boss in a way that most allows your position to be heard (courtesy of HBR).

  1. Be realistic about the risks. “Most people tend to overplay the risks involved in speaking up….consider ‘the risks of not speaking up’ – perhaps the project will be derailed or you’ll lose the teams trust – then realistically weigh those against the potential consequences of taking action.”

  2. Decide whether to wait. “After the risk assessment, you may decide it’s best to hold off on voicing your opinion…It’s also a good idea to delay the conversation if you’re in a meeting or other public space. Discussing the issue in private will make the powerful person feel less threatened.”

  3. Identify a shared goal. “Before you share your thoughts, think about what the powerful person cares about…You’re more likely to be heard if you can connect your disagreement to a ‘higher purpose.'”

  4. Ask permission to disagree. “This step may sound overly deferential, but, according to Grenny, it’s a smart way to give the powerful person ‘psychological safety’ and control.” (Click here to read our article on psychological safety)

  5. Stay calm. “You might feel your heart racing or your face turning red, but do whatever you can to remain neutral in both your words and actions. When your body language communicates reluctance or anxiety, it undercuts the message.”

  6. Validate the original point. “After you’ve gotten permission, articulate the other person’s point of view. What is the idea, opinion, or proposal that you’re disagreeing with? Stating that clearly, possibly even better than your counterpart did, lays a strong foundation for the discussion.”

  7. Don’t make judgements. “When you move on to expressing your concerns, watch your language carefully. Grenny says to avoid any ‘judgement words’ such as ‘short-sighted,’ ‘foolish,’ or ‘hasty’ that might set off your counterpart; one of his tips is to cut out all adjectives, since ‘they have the potential to be misinterpreted or taken personally.'”

  8. Stay humble. “Emphasize that you’re offering your opinion, not ‘gospel truth,’ says Grenny. ‘It may be a well-informed, well-researched opinion, but it’s still an opinion, [so] talk tentatively and slightly understate your confidence'”

  9. Acknowledge their authority. “Ultimately, the person in power is probably going to make the final decision, so acknowledge that…That will not only show you know your place but also remind them that they have choices, Grenny says. Don’t backtrack on your opinion or give false praise, though.”

Click here to read HBR’s full article on this topic.

What do you think about these ideas? As a leader, how do you handle disagreement? Do you think your employees feel like they can speak up to you? What about when you disagree with your boss? Do you have any other suggestions? We want to know!

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