5 ways to (nicely) disagree with your boss

December 13, 2014, 4:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Pete Duvall — The Hitachi Foundation

MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. This week we ask: How do you disagree with your boss? The following answer is by Barbara Dyer, President and CEO of The Hitachi Foundation.

I’ll start by reversing the question: How should the boss invite disagreement from employees? A business culture that embraces disagreement can lead to better decisions and a more dynamic organization. As a CEO, I want my staff to challenge my ideas and push me to think in vastly different ways. I also want them to challenge each other constructively, and for my staff to be receptive when their ideas are put to the test. Disagreement, when properly structured, can foster great ideas, guard against group-think, sharpen analysis, improve judgment, and ultimately achieve collective satisfaction with the final decision.

At the same time, people are fragile. Disagreement in the workplace can be threatening and even toxic. I have worked at organizations where disagreement took the form of back-stabbing or power plays. On the other hand, I’ve seen organizations where no one challenges the boss and people keep under the radar. You know these places – you may even work at one of them.

So, how do you disagree with your boss? I’ve had successes and blunders throughout my career and here are a few lessons from my journey:

  • Understand your motivation. What result do you hope to achieve by presenting your position? Do you hope to change minds? Contribute to strategy? Right a wrong? Be recognized? Disrupt the status quo? A little self reflection up front about your motivation and what you hope to achieve can help avoid problems later.
  • Understand your boss’s and company’s tolerance for disagreement. What are the norms? What crosses the line? What are the likely risks and rewards for disagreeing?
  • Have a well-developed argument. Passion may be powerful but be sure to base your argument on facts. Understand alternatives and be able to make your case in the context of strong alternative options.
  • Be prepared to win. If your argument prevails, be ready to move it forward.
  • Be prepared to lose. If your argument does not sway the boss, know your next step. Can you let it go? Will you be able to support the decision and do a great job? If not, what is your obligation to the firm and to yourself?

Once you rise to a leadership position within your firm, it’s now your role to shape an environment for constructive disagreement. Here are a few tips for future bosses: Be genuine. Don’t say you welcome disagreement and then avoid it or get defensive when challenged. Create processes that encourage staff to take divergent positions, challenge assumptions, and offer alternatives. Maintain an open door policy for individuals to disagree. Be transparent about decisions. Guard against the toxins: personal, emotional, biased, ruthless disagreement. Above all, ensure dignity and respect for your employees.

The richness of the experience in one’s career can be measured by the intensity of learning. Disagreement is essential to learning. In the best workplaces, constructive disagreement can be a means for self-discovery and organizational development as it builds a stronger bond with the boss.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How do you disagree with your boss?

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