This Is How to Disagree With Your Boss and Earn Respect

difficult employee, disagreeAs a leader, the worst thing to surround yourself with are “Yes” men and women who blindly follow every directive without question. While it may feed the ego for some bosses, it is usually bad for the organization. Everyone, especially in management, needs people who will question things from time to time and offer alternative ways to do things.

However, it’s difficult to disagree with the boss even under the best of circumstances. Even worse, if you work for a difficult person, it can be stressful and intimidating. If you feel the need to disagree with anyone, including your boss, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. One way hurts feelings, steps on toes and embarrasses people. The other way opens discussion at a minimum, acceptance as a real possibility, and earns you respect virtually every time.

Let’s use the following scenario as an example:

A midlevel manager, Tracy, gets a directive from the boss that she thinks is ill advised. Tracy concludes that the plan won’t achieve the desired results in its present form. Instead, she believes it will increase costs, demoralize crucial employees and ultimately cause customer dissatisfaction. Whatever the problem is, Tracy is aware that because it’s the boss’s plan, she has to deal with the situation with a degree of sensitivity.

Address the problem as you would want someone to do it with you

Example 1:

disagreeTracy sat at the meeting table with seven other managers listening to the CEO’s plan. She previously researched ways to realize the goals set out by the CEO and she was certain this path was wrong. She waited for a break in the conversation and then told her boss that the plan won’t work.

“Of course it’ll work,” the boss replied.

“I want to redesign the plan,” Tracy said.

“No,” answered the boss.

“But …. “ Tracy started to protest.

“If you can’t handle the project, maybe I was wrong thinking you could do it,” said the boss in that tone of voice that signaled the end of the discussion.

Tracy reflected on all this later. She realized that she had caused her boss to become defensive and that she had probably lost the chance to change her boss’s mind.

Example 2:

After the meeting where the boss revealed the plan, Tracy asked the boss for a meeting where she could ask a few questions to help her understand the plan better. They set a date and time.

Tracy went to the meeting with a pen and notepad and asked the boss what he wanted to achieve with his plan. The boss described his objectives in detail. Tracy then asked a series of questions to clarify her understanding of the objectives. To be certain she understood correctly, she paraphrased the goals.

She then told her boss she could achieve the objectives and asked for permission to come back with a plan that would resolve her concerns later that week. The boss agreed. Later that week, the boss gratefully accepted Tracy’s plan after seeing the benefit to the organization and customers. She began implementing it later that day.

The dos and don’ts of disagreeing with the boss

Here are some lessons Tracy gained from this experience, in the form of dos and don’ts that can help you disagree with your boss and win.

Don’t:

  • Come out and say you disagree with the boss’s plan, especially in front of others. No one wants to be talked to like that and that goes double for the boss.
  • Use the dreaded word “but,” which might make it appear that you’re negating everything the boss had said. Instead, use the word “suggest”—it’s a magic word in this kind of dialogue, because no boss bristles at a suggestion.
  • Let your emotions come into play. Wait a while before presenting an alternate plan. Ask for a meeting to discuss the boss’s objectives.

Do:

  • Start the one-on-one meeting by asking what the boss wants to achieve and the reasons for these goals. Ask open-ended questions to probe further. Paraphrase to make sure you understand. Thank the boss for the information and set a date for presenting your plan.
  • Make sure your plan links to the boss’s critical needs, including the personal ones, as you understand them
  • Visualize yourself in the boss’s shoes. Appreciate what’s good about the boss’s roadmap. After all, your goal is to have your plan accepted, not to prove the boss wrong.
  • Open the meeting by giving the boss the floor. You won’t get the attention you need until the boss invites you to speak. Present your plan enthusiastically. Make it clear that the intention of your plan is to achieve what the boss wants. Start with the bottom line, not how you’ll implement the plan. Fill in the details only if you’re asked for them. Keep it short; the boss is busy.

Whatever you may think of your boss, you cannot advance your career without him or her on your side. Good communications skills with all the people you work with are essential for building your career. The way you present yourself to your boss—indeed, to everyone you work with—will affect your ability to do your job well and the way you’re viewed as a professional.

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