MANAGING UP PART III: DISAGREEING WITH THE BOSS

Unless you are one of those managers who just happens to be one of life’s natural contrarians and thus loves being on the opposite side of almost any issue, chances are you don’t relish arguing or disagreeing with your boss. In fact, some managers are so emotionally uncomfortable with conflict that they assiduously avoid such disagreements whenever possible.

Still the best managers recognize there will be times when the responsibility invested in them as a designated authority requires that they speak up in opposition to something their superiors have done, are considering, or are about to do. These are moments when you just seem to know you need to say something on behalf of your subordinates, yourself, or the organization as a whole.

A good friend and colleague of mine refers to this as “speaking truth to power”. Being a part of an organization’s management team sometimes means having the courage to put the organization’s best interest ahead of any discomfort we might feel in challenging authority in some way.

I wish I could offer some simple method I discovered during my management career that would make challenging authority easy but the fact that we and authority share the same human nature makes that impossible. What makes open disagreement with the boss difficult is how we humans often tend to interpret disagreement. And you can generally disregard the fact that the majority of bosses will tell us to let them know exactly what we think.

While a great many bosses respond to disagreement in a mature, reasonably objective way, there are those who see opposition as a direct challenge to their authority. For still others, disagreement often translates into something like “oh, so you think you are smarter than me” . For an immature boss lacking in self-confidence, opposition to something they have championed can seem far more threatening than constructive or an attempt to be of help.

So when you do need to speak up, do so in a calm, constructive way. Avoid accusations, be armed with facts not opinions, be direct and to the point, avoid loaded adjectives, and always be mindful of the power imbalance when talking to the boss. My military friends usually advise sticking to the two “yes but” rule. Because the boss must live with the consequences of her or his decision, ultimately they get to have the final word. Have your say but know when you have said enough. Knowing when to let it go is perhaps the single most important key to disagreeing with authority if you wish to be taken seriously when you next decide to speak up.

If your disagreement is met with an angry or emotional outburst, duck, cover, and know you have probably made your point. I always preferred to give this type of boss time to cool down — absent my presence —  and think about what I had to say. Remember, temper tantrums and angry emotional outbursts are not a product of rational thinking and thus cannot be reasoned with. Such outbursts are childish, unprofessional, and counterproductive. Do not respond in kind.

In the end, winning is not the point of disagreeing with your boss. Speaking truth to power is about being a responsible manager who cares enough to offer a different perspective when he or she believes the good of the organization is in question in some way. The best managers understand this and act accordingly.

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