How To Disagree With Your Boss

Disagreeing with your boss is easily one of the most precarious situations for a leader. Done wrong, it can derail your career. Done correctly it can set you up for a solid, candid relationship. Let’s setup a few ground rules.

  1. Never do it in front of other people.

Honestly, it shocks me to even have to write this. For goodness sakes, never disagree with your boss in front of other people. I have personally watched this go very wrong.

 We were sitting on the conference call of my executive directors’ staff meeting. A decision had been made that some managers would now report directly to ED’s instead of to a director. During the staff meeting another manager, let’s call him “Bill,” said, “I don’t understand why we are not being made directors, it doesn’t make sense for us to report directly to an ED. This decision doesn’t make sense.”

Now, Bill was a smart man. He was well respected and had thus far had a great career. He did however fail to understand how his speaking up in front of a group would be received. There was a period of silence as we all anxiously waiting for our ED to respond. With a slow, measured tone she replied, “Well, if you think you are supposed to be working for a director, I can make that happen.” A cold silence fell across the conference call. Less than two months later, Bill was moved to another group under a director and never heard from again.

Was he really wrong? His statement may have been factually accurate, but he was wrong in the way he presented it. When you question someone in front of a group you are not only questioning the decision, you are actually questioning the person. That will be taken as an assault on authority instead of a legitimate question about the policy at hand. The correct way: always do it alone. Schedule a meeting face to face, give them a call, schedule a call—whatever you need to do to get them alone. Make clear you want to understand the decision, not commit an assault.

2. Validate their point of view

You don’t know everything. (I mean, I know everything, but you probably don’t.) The number of bad decisions and dumb projects that you are going to see over the course of your career will blow your mind. On initial inspection, you will be unable to figure out how a rational person could ever come to the conclusion your executive leadership did. However, it is vitally important that you take the time to grab even a thread of why they might have thought this way. If you can’t find one, try harder. Take a day. Despite what you think, they did make this decision for a perceived benefit, even if it is wrong. You have to validate that there might even be a reason why they did this. This signals to your leadership that you thought about the problem and are not having an emotional reaction. When you fail to do this, you are questioning their intelligence and decision-making ability. You are there to fix problems, not cause them.

3. Come in with an alternative solution.

One of the things I misunderstood when I was a young manager is that your direct superiors do not want your questions or your problems. They have enough problems on their own. You must come into the situation with an alternative. I had only been a manager for about a year when I started having issues on a project. I had never faced this situation before, and so naturally I reached out for help. I gave my director a call. She patiently waited for me to finish explaining the situation and then asked, “What do you want to do?”

“Uhhhhhhhh…” I had run through this conversation in my head and in my inexperience had never anticipated that as her response.

“Well, I am not sure…” I mean the entire point of my call was to get her perspective on the situation.

“Okay, when you figure it out let me know, and I will support you.”

Then the conversation was over. I hung up realizing this had not really helped me at all. But it did later make me understand that I had been give the job as a manager not only to solve problems but to make my boss’s life easier. Don’t come with problems, come with solutions.

One Rebuttal Rule

Another important point to keep in mind: you get one chance to change someone’s mind. One rebuttal. After that you have got to move on. This is just as important as the three previous ground rules. Construct your argument, make your point, and your leader will immediately let you know that your concerns have been heard. If you do not get immediate agreement, Stop Talking Immediately. I have watched my peers make the mistake of continuing to bring up disagreements. It didn’t end well. I have even seen it within my own team when people disagree with my decisions. Nothing is more irritating than to set a direction and have it continually questioned, over and over again. If you do that, enjoy the bottom of the stack ranking. This also applies to “I told you so.” If you have already made your point and the decision blows up, do not say anything. Ever. They already know.