If you work with other people, then disagreements are part of your work life. It's a necessary part of work too, proving essential to critical thinking. Yet, many times we avoid disagreement because we worry that pushing back will damage relationships or hurt our career trajectories.
That is what I did as a young supervisor when the head of our 500-person branch scolded me for helping staff finish their work. I disagreed. Our department was understaffed, morale was low, and staff didn't trust management. Offering a little help on a hot summer day was the least I could do, but instead, I nodded quietly.
Five years later, I was faced with a similar situation at a different organization. I didn't get a promotion I felt I deserved, so I scheduled a conversation with the head of our office. I told him that I knew the decision was final, so I wasn't there to try to change his mind. I only wanted to share its harmful effect on me and the other high performers more junior than me. The conversation was tense and difficult. I was nervous before and after.
Yet, several months later, I was promoted, asked to be the liaison between junior staff and management, and voted coach of the year. The organization knew I was thoughtful about people development and that I would stand up for what was right for my colleagues.
Disagreeing shows the quality of your thinking and the strength of your convictions. When done right, it also does the opposite of our fears:
- It can lead to promotion and increased pay.
- It can improve your felt experience of work.
- It can lead to higher-quality, longer-lasting relationships.
The key to reaping these benefits is to make the people you disagree with feel good about themselves. Here's how you do that:
Most people's first reaction to disagreement is to defend themselves. True questions cause people to think rather than defend themselves. They give others the opportunity to change their minds and come up with alternative solutions themselves, increasing the odds that they leave feeling powerful.
They're generally simple to come up with too. Instead of saying, "I think that initiative will hurt our bottom line," say: "How do you think this initiative will hurt our bottom line?" If your colleague believes the initiative will improve revenue, you can ask: "What are your estimates based on?" or "Have you accounted for... in your projections?"
Sometimes people land on bad decisions because they can't think of better solutions. Attacking their idea doesn't change anything. They still lack a better idea. When you propose other solutions, you give them options. Combine this practice with the previous to make it more effective: "Have you considered this other idea...?"
When proposing alternatives, it's important to assume that they have already thought of your ideas. Say: "You've might have thought of these other ideas already, but in case you haven't..." rather than, "Here's a new idea for you..." This shows you think they are just as smart as you.
Make tradeoffs explicit.
Other times people make bad decisions because they lack information or have bad information. They may decide to invest in a new technology rather than improving the old because they don't understand all the costs of switching. Making tradeoffs explicit ensures that they know the full range of costs and benefits.
This tactic is particularly helpful when you are asked to take on more work than you can manage. Help them understand the effect the additional work will have: "I'd be happy to take on this extra piece of work, but that will mean that I won't be able to get that slide presentation to you until next week. Does that work?" This makes them feel powerful by giving them a choice.
Commit to defer upfront.
When the person you're disagreeing with is more senior than you or has decision-making rites, it's important that you, from the beginning, let them know you'll ultimately do what they want you to do. Otherwise, they may feel you're threatening their authority. When people's authority is threatened, they often become more authoritative, leaving even less room for disagreement.
You can do this without sacrificing the strength of your case by saying something like: "If you want me to shift priorities, I'll do it, but can I just check that we're thinking about the tradeoffs the same way first?" When deferring, avoid attributing it to their positional authority, as in "Since you're my boss, you know I'll do what you say, but..." Your superiors want your respect to be based on who they are and what they are capable of, not their position.
Disagreeing is part of your purpose at work. As a founder, I don't want someone on my team that won't disagree with me. I already have my ideas and opinions. I don't need someone to affirm them. The good news is that when you disagree in the ways described above, there are real benefits. Do you disagree with me?