It’s Your Job To Disagree With Your Boss
“You can disagree without being disagreeable.”— Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1933 — )
Recently, a young friend of mine was promoted from a mid-level engineering position to first-tier management. Alex was excited at first about the promotion, but after a few months became frustrated. The problem, he shared, was that he was no good at meetings, and he had to participate in a lot of them.
Alex often found himself disagreeing with points other managers and directors were making, or directions people wanted to take the company. But, being new to management, he was afraid to voice his disagreement and potentially make enemies. Reinforcing his fear was the repeated experience of watching one of the directors aggressively impugning the character of another manager when opposing viewpoints were expressed.
“I don’t know why I attend these meetings,” Alex shared. “It feels like a waste of time. No one above me wants to hear my ideas, and I could just as easily give and receive communications through email.”
I had to admit that Alex had a point. If he wasn’t going to speak up in leadership meetings then he really was wasting his time, and everyone else’s. However, if he wanted to grow in the company, the solution wasn’t to stop participating in meetings, but to start participating. To do that he would need to confront his underlying and limiting beliefs about disagreement.
In Alex’s view, disagreeing with someone was the same as challenging their authority, being disloyal, or questioning their ability to lead. It was reasonable, in his mind, to expect the one being challenged to defend themselves and shut the challenge down.
With the heated political rhetoric of today, it’s not surprising that disagreement would be confused with aggressiveness. More and more, politicians are finding that shutting down debate through ridicule and character defamation, known as “ad hominem attacks,” is an increasingly effective strategy for winning political office. However, this strategy can backfire, especially in the workplace or at home.
When one resorts to these character attacks, rather than addressing the facts presented for the topic at hand, it reveals insecurity and manifests as weakness. Ad hominem attacks also breed ad hominem retorts which can derail a discussion quickly, thus giving the “win” of the argument to the person who doesn’t walk away.
Whether the situation is in the workplace, at home, or with friends, our ability to communicate and listen to each other when we have differing viewpoints is key to healthy discourse. Like any relationship between two people, the ability for us to have these difficult conversations requires both people be willing to approach the exercise from a mature place, setting the emotions and egos aside and focusing the discussion at hand.
When we do this, especially in the workplace, research indicates that organizations and their teams make better decisions than those that shut down dissenters. Which makes sense, as people who welcome dissent are working with more information than those that do not. Thus, encouraging dissent in the workplace can result in more innovation, higher employee performance, reduced turnover, increased job satisfaction, and decreased burnout.
As I explained these benefits to Alex, he nodded his head, but still hesitated. I asked him if he would want someone to tell him if he was making a bad decision. Alex agreed that he would “as long as the person was decent about it,” but then said he didn’t think everyone was as open to critical feedback.
“I want to do what’s best for the company,” he said, “but how do I keep from bruising someone’s ego, or getting into some kind of power struggle?”
Effectively Presenting Dissent at Work
In today’s day and age, it can be easy to fall for the myth that loyalty means not disagreeing with your leader(s). In truth, dissension is as loyal as it gets.
Opinions that go against the status quo are rarely self-serving. Instead, they are typically based on a person’s desire to generate a better product or service for their customers, or a better working environment for themselves and their fellow employees. For employees like Alex, timid about expressing dissenting opinions to those who might attack them, there are still ways to effectively voice constructive criticism for the good of the team or company.
Obtain an Invitation: There are many reasons why managers layout directives to their subordinates, and sometimes there isn’t any room for dissenting opinions around decisions that have already been made, especially at a high level. Therefore, the first step is to understand if your boss is open to hearing your thoughts. Next time you have dissent to provide your team, listen for the leader to give the invitation. This can appear in the form of asking for feedback, or if people have had experience with the topic in the past. If you don’t get an invitation organically, and still feel strongly about voicing your perspective, try asking something like “Are you open to a different opinion on this?” or “Are you open to suggestions on this idea?” This will give you direct feedback and your leader the choice to open the topic for discussion.
Keep Your Emotions in Check: Dissent is generally born from intense feelings, as it’s those feelings that propel us to speak out. However, supervisors and team members are more likely to consider your position seriously if it comes from a rational, logical place. Even if someone attacks you personally for your ideas, don’t allow it to derail your argument. Ignore the ad hominem attack the best you can and keep your focus on presenting the facts, and offering solutions.
Call Out Ad Hominem Attacks: In the school of logical argument, when a person uses this tactic they automatically lose. They’ve indicated they are not willing or able to defend their position, so they attempt it discredit and unhinge their opponent. By gently calling out the ad hominem for what it is, refusing to take the bait, and redirecting the person to stick to the facts of the argument, one can keep the focus on the topic being discussed. As with the other strategies, this has the best chance to work if you keep your emotions in check and respond calmly and rationally.
If Necessary, Hold a Face to Face Meeting in Private: Putting your supervisor on the spot in front of other team members or their superiors by disagreeing with them in public rarely produces the results you are looking for. Additionally, try to refrain from writing emails detailing your position. Research by Juliana Schroeder indicates that written arguments allow the reader to be more dismissive of a claim, compared to hearing about it in person. Instead, set up a one-on-one meeting where you can share your concerns in private. This allows the other person to consider your points without feeling like they are being put on the spot publicly, or within email. Do follow up that meeting with a roundup email of what was discussed if you feel it’s important to have a record of the meeting.
Agree, Augment and Add: This tactic allows you to show the person you are speaking to that you are on their side and are looking to help them improve on their stance. To initiate this strategy, first tell the person the ways in which you agree with them. Then augment with an explanation of why. Then, add to their line of thinking in a way that helps them to consider something they have not, which would be a reason for your concern or dissent on the topic at hand. This tactic shows the person you are listening to them and that you support them in making the best decision possible. An example of how to carry this tactic out could be “Yes, I agree that we need to increase our marketing spend because, as you said, we’re just not hitting our numbers. At the same time, I’m concerned that spending more on the same channels may give us diminishing returns. Have you considered exploring new customer acquisition channels?”
Package Dissent with Solutions: Whenever you have a problem or differing opinion you want to bring up to your leader, think through possible solutions to the challenge beforehand. If you can implement those solutions yourself, that’s even better. This strategy allows you to show up as a critical thinker and proactive problem-solver, while also making it more difficult for someone to dismiss you as disgruntled or a malcontent. Thinking through solutions also gives you the space to see the challenge from your supervisor’s point of view. The exercise could also enlighten you that the position the supervisor is taking is a more advantageous one.
This week, pay close attention to your opinions at work and in your personal life. Do you notice dissenting thoughts that go unexpressed? If so, what’s holding you back from expressing your truth? Additionally, pick a few of the tactics above and implement them the next time you have a differing opinion. How does it work or not work for you and what could you do better next time to ensure a more desirable result?