Wake-up call: How to disagree with the boss

Speaking up may be intimidating but if you stay cool, you can get your point across

Most people overplay the risks of speaking up

Most people overplay the risks of speaking up

 

“Our bodies specialise in survival, so we have a natural bias to avoid situations that might harm us,” says Joseph Grenny, the co-author of Crucial Conversations.

Negative implications

Holly WeeksFailure to Communicate

Here are some tips for disagreeing with someone who has more power in the situation than you do:

nBe realistic about the risks: Most people overplay the risks of speaking up. Yes, your counterpart might be surprised and a little upset at first. But chances are you are not going to get fired or make a lifelong enemy. Grenny suggests that you first consider “the risks of not speaking up”, then weigh those against the potential consequences of taking action. n

Decide whether to wait: You may decide it’s best to hold off on voicing your opinion. “If you think other people are going to disagree too, you might want to gather your army first,” Weeks says. “People can contribute experience or information to your thinking.” Always wait to discuss the issue in private.

nIdentify a shared goal: You are more likely to be heard if you can connect your disagreement to a “higher purpose,” according to Grenny. When you do speak up, don’t assume the link will be clear. State it overtly, contextualising your statements so that you are seen not as disagreeable, but as a colleague who’s trying to advance a shared goal.

nAsk for permission to disagree: This is a smart way to give the powerful person “psychological safety” and control, Grenny says. It gives the person a choice. And, assuming he says yes, it will make you more confident about voicing your disagreement.

nStay calm: Do whatever you can to remain neutral. When your body language communicates reluctance or anxiety, it undercuts the message, Weeks says. Deep breaths and speaking more slowly and deliberately can help.

nValidate the original point: Articulate the other person’s point of view. What is the idea, opinion or proposal that you disagree with? Stating that clearly lays a strong foundation for the discussion.

nDon’t judge: Grenny says to avoid words such as “shortsighted” or “hasty” that might set off your counterpart. One of his tips is to cut out all adjectives. You should also stick to the facts.

nStay humble: Emphasise that you are offering your opinion, Grenny says. “It may be a well-informed, well-researched opinion, but it’s still an opinion, [so] talk tentatively and slightly understate your confidence.” Weeks suggests adding a lot of “guiding phrases” like “I’m thinking aloud here”. This will leave room for dialogue. You should also “demonstrate equal curiosity about other views,” Grenny says.

nAcknowledge his authority: The person in power is probably going to make the final decision, so acknowledge that. You might say, “I know you’ll make the call here. This is up to you.” That will not only show that you know your place but also remind your superior that he has choices, Grenny says. Don’t backtrack or give false praise, though. “You want to show respect to the person while maintaining your own self-respect,” Weeks says.

– Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016 Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review

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