One of the frequent questions I’m asked by the managers/leaders I coach is “How do I effectively disagree with my boss?” Knowing how to disagree with your boss, and not commit career suicide, is an essential skill set and falls under the category of learning to “manage up.” While most managers/leaders are able to manage down – at least a majority of the time- being able to effectively “manage up” is a much more difficult for the obvious reason: the boss not only has significant control over the day to day operation and can make a subordinate’s work life miserable but they also exercise considerable influence over a subordinate’s future with the company. Therefore, -duh- making the boss an enemy is never a good career move.
However, with that said, it is a manager’s/leader’s obligation, to both their boss and the organization, to have a well thought out opinion about situations/issues/problems, that is supported by facts and gut instinct, and then to timely and effectively express that opinion to their boss – even if it is not the opinion held by the boss. Failing to do this is a disservice to the boss, whose opinion might be changed if they heard a well thought out and appropriately expressed different point of view, and a failure to properly represent the organization that gives them a paycheck. So, my counsel is: once your opinion has been formulated you should not change that opinion or be reluctant to express it just because the boss disagrees or may not like it. However, how you deliver your opinion is paramount to having your opinion heard without having potentially toxic fallout. So, before you inadvertently commit career suicide, consider these Rules for disagreeing with the Boss and surviving the experience:
Never disrespect your Boss! Regardless of how vehemently you disagree with your Boss, always treat him/her with the respect due them as a person and as the person holding the position of authority and responsibility. Conversely, you are entitled to that same degree of respect from your Boss.
Never disagree with your Boss in public! Unless you want to get fired. Or your judgment is so impaired you should get fired!
Express your disagreement directly to your Boss! When you disagree with the Boss, immediately take that disagreement directly to the Boss. Don’t express your disagreement with your Boss to your team or co-workers. This behavior serves no legitimate purpose because: 1. Only the Boss can change his/her opinion, 2. The person you are complaining to may tell the Boss you are complaining about them, and 3. Your complaining will erode the team’s morale.
Choose the right time to disagree with the Boss! We all react with varying degrees of defensiveness when facing disagreement. And the higher the stress level at the time of the disagreement, the less likely the reasons for the disagreement will be properly heard. Disagreeing with your Boss in the middle of a presentation or client meeting serves no purpose since the Boss will seldom react in a positive manner. Disagree only when there is an opportunity for you to talk to the Boss about the basis for the disagreement.
Don’t make the disagreement personal! Make the disagreement about the Boss and you vs. the problem and not the Boss vs. you. Be professional, objective, constructive and - above all - respectful as you express the reason for disagreeing. And offer alternative solutions along with the disagreement.
Be sure the Boss can handle your disagreement! Some Bosses don’t want any opposition or disagreement, regardless of how poorly they are managing a situation. If the seriousness of the situation warrants it, go to your Boss’s Boss to raise the issue that provides the basis for your disagreement. Remember, you ultimately owe your allegiance to the organization and not your Boss. Nobody above your Boss? Or nobody above your Boss who will listen? See Rule # 7 below.
It may be time to leave! If you follow these Rules and are not heard, it may be time to quit working for your Boss.