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7 ways to effectively disagree with your boss

Liza Landsman, CMO of E*TRADE Financial.Liza Landsman, CMO of E*TRADE Financial.
Liza Landsman, CMO of E*TRADE Financial.Photograph by Peter Gregoire

MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you disagree with your boss? is written by Liza Landsman, CMO of E-Trade Financial.

Disagreeing well is an art form and if done effectively can improve your relationship with your boss, boost your credibility and advance your own career path. The following seven rules can apply broadly to most situations, but every relationship has its own unique dynamic so the devil’s in the details:

1) Work to understand the intentions of your boss. By this, I mean respect where your boss is coming from, grounded in the assumption that they are a well-intentioned, smart person. Their biases most likely developed the same way yours did: from real-world, valid experiences. Even if their perspectives are vastly different from your own, don’t discount them. Elevating to your boss’s level of thinking can help you build credibility, become a more trusted counsel and grow professionally.

2) Argue facts and impacts, not religion. Bring data and robust situational analysis to the conversation, rather than beliefs or feelings. This is not to say the more subjective issues like morale, team dynamics or potential customer impact should be left off the table. Just be sure to frame these subjective issues within the impacts of the business. This is particularly important for women, regardless the gender of their boss.

3) Focus on the outcome. Everyone likes to be right, but being right will not always best serve the needs of your team or business. Anchor your perspective on what is most beneficial for your company. Make sure your dialogue is focused on driving toward that outcome rather than just winning an argument. It’s also helpful to develop “plan a” and “plan b” outcomes before engaging your boss in a disagreement.

4) Incorporate suggestions from your colleagues. If a complex issue is the source of the disagreement, get advice from colleagues who are critical influencers to your boss. They can help you understand where your boss is coming from and when necessary, provide advice on how best to sway the perspective of your boss. If colleagues agree with you, they may be willing to help influence your boss’ decision.

5) Don’t hold grudges. Discuss, decide and execute. Make sure your disagreements always allow both people to leave the conversation feeling respected, heard and – ideally – enlightened, regardless of the outcome. Create a path for your boss to understand your perspective and feel positive about the experience (and vice versa). And most importantly, never say (or think too loudly) “I told you so.”

6) Approach the conversation by saying “yes and…” An oldie but a goodie for a reason. Find the place you DO have common ground and build on that rather than focusing on the points of conflict. It may not always bring you into perfect alignment, but it allows for a real discussion that may carry you closer together, or at least give you a deeper understanding of your boss’s point of view.

7) Know your own non-negotiables: If there’s an issue, person or project you absolutely know you should fight for, then absolutely do so — but remember: rules one through six still apply. Professionalism and civility matter. Always.

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

4 ways to (successfully) persuade your boss by Liz Wiseman, President of Wiseman Group.

3 tips to make your voice heard at work by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

How to argue effectively at work by Kathy Collins, Chief Marketing Officer of H&R Block.

5 ways to (nicely) disagree with your boss by Barbara Dyer, President and CEO of The Hitachi Foundation.

Why it’s always ok to disagree with your boss by Pontish Yeramyan, founder and CEO of Gap International.