It’s not easy to confront your boss, but sometimes it’s necessary: if you think their proposal is flawed, or they’re about to make a harmful decision, it’s possible to intervene in a respectful and strategic way. Joseph Grenny, coauthor of Crucial Conversations, has identified steps you can take to effectively disagree with someone higher up in the org chart:
- Take an honest look at the risks. Most people tend to exaggerate the risks of speaking up in their own minds—as Grenny says, “we tend to imagine all the things that will go horribly wrong.” Be realistic, and ask yourself, will I make a lifelong enemy? Will I get fired? The answer is probably “no.” More importantly, Grenny says to consider “the risks of not speaking up.”
- Get the timing right. After assessing the risks, you still may want to hold off on speaking up. Maybe you need to get a better understanding of the issue and see if others feel the same way as you do. (There is power in numbers!) Or it may be better to put off the discussion so your boss is not put on the spot.
- Emphasize your common goal. Make it clear that you are in agreement with the larger goal behind their decision—your manager is more likely to agree with you if you overtly state your shared motive.
- Err on the side of deference. Give yourself and your boss some psychological cushioning by asking, “Would that be OK?” or “May I show you how I’d do this differently?” Giving them the leeway to say no, even though it’s assumed they’ll say yes, will give you more confidence when you voice your opinion.
- Take a few deep breaths. Getting angry, anxious, or panicky will undercut your message. Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate, notes that your boss will choose what they pay attention to—your words or your red face—and you don’t want them to pick the latter. Slow your pace and speak in a level, even tone to keep yourself and the higher-up calm.
- Restate their point back to them. When your boss recognizes that you understand them, they’ll see you’re trying to compromise, not fight. This will lay a strong foundation for the discussion.
- Avoid using “judgement words”. Grenny says phrases like, “short-sighted, “foolish,” or “hasty” should be avoided. In fact, don’t use adjectives because “they have the potential to be misinterpreted or taken personally." Be neutral and factual with your statements, and definitely don’t criticize or condescend.
- Remember your opinion is valuable, but not the “gospel truth.” This is where phrasing is key. Instead of saying, “If we set an end-of-quarter deadline, we’ll never make it,” try “This is just my opinion, but I don’t see how we’ll make that deadline.” Be assertive, but don’t state your opinion as fact. Being open to solutions and inviting critique will lead to even better ideas.
- Respect their position. It's important to remember that ultimately, your boss is going to make the final call. This doesn’t mean you should invalidate your own opinion by giving false praise or prefacing your statements with “I’m only a new manager, but…” Respect yourself and your superior. They’ll feel more comfortable with the idea of listening to your opinion.
The Do's and Don'ts of Disagreeing
- Say you have a different opinion and ask permission to voice it.
- Restate their point of view to show you understand their opinion.
- Speak slowly, calmly, and with an even tone.
- Assume the worst.
- State your opinion like it’s fact. Express your point of view and be open to dialogue.
- Use inflammatory words, like “hasty”, “foolish”, or “wrong”, because it may upset your counterpart.
Takeaway: If you disagree with your boss, don’t panic, and don’t be too hasty. Calmly and respectfully disagree with them in order to open up a productive discussion.