How To Disagree With Your CEO And Not Get Fired

It's one thing to have a dissenting opinion. It's another to foster an environment that encourages healthy debates from the CEO down to the interns. Here's how Hubspot makes it work.

We’re a culture of oversharers. We tweet our favorite quotes. We keep our Facebook friends up to date on the latest YouTube video that made us laugh. Instagram photos of our meals, our drinks, our pets, our recent purchases. We Snapchat selfies. Yet most people would never think of sharing their paycheck.

In his quest for total transparency at Hubspot, cofounder and CTO Dharmesh Shah believed that the executives needed to open up about their salaries. "I had this bright idea late one night," Shah tells Fast Company, that he would like to publish the information on the company’s internal wiki. The company might go public one day, he reasoned, and that information would be open to all, not just employees.

The result: unanticipated pushback from the top brass through the rank and file.

At any other company, the thought of sharing such sensitive information with all staffers is verboten. At the marketing software firm Hubspot, things are a little different. Billing its culture as radically transparent, Hubspot’s internal wiki is a place for the nearly 700 employees to tap all manner of information from funding rounds to cash burn rates.

"High order decisions" from the executive team are posted and up for debate, too. Though Shah admits, "We have very few rules about what we can share," he says that historically "things that are not ours to share" otherwise protected by non-disclosure or confidentiality agreements are off limits. That included employees’ salary information.

Still, Shah thought the staff had a right to peek behind the curtain and see his, cofounder and CEO Brian Halligan’s, and COO J.D. Sherman’s paychecks. Unlike Buffer, which recently decided to disclose the formula it used to determine salaries as well as a list of all its staff’s compensation, Shah only wanted to publish base pay, not stock options or equity. Thus, the unanticipated reaction. Part of the criticism, he explains, was about the potential for staff to be misled. For some executives at other companies, base pay can be a small part of the total compensation package.

He eventually abandoned the idea. "I couldn’t come up with good strong reasons," Shah confesses, whereas others from all parts of the company chimed in with better opinions. The experiment reinforced Hubspot’s culture of open debate, but it also served up some important lessons.

How to Disagree with your CEO

Shah concedes that in his experience, it could get someone labeled at best "misaligned with the company" or a troublemaker at worst.

At Hubspot, Shah says "titles don’t really matter a whole lot." In fact, when the company was starting out, they didn’t use them at all. That’s one reason why he says it wasn’t hard to float an idea that didn’t necessarily have CEO Halligan’s blessing. "Hierarchy doesn’t dictate how much influence you have [at Hubspot]," Shah says, "It’s the quality of your ideas. We don’t like people to pull rank."

For those intrepid enough to want to air a dissenting opinion at their own workplace, Shah suggests making a deliberate decision to take a stand. Then take a page from Hubspot’s play book and use data to make an evidence-based case for your decision.

Three Steps to Encourage Healthy Debate

1. Ditch the Employee Handbook.
That doesn’t just go for decisions by management, says Shah. "If you walk out of a meeting and you disagree [with what was said] you have a moral obligation to get it out there. Don’t let it fester," Shah contends, because it’s not fair to the other person, or people in the group.

To encourage this kind of interaction, Shah says it starts right when new people join the team. "We don’t have a 300-page employee handbook," he asserts. Hubspotters are simply told to use good judgement and solve for the company and the customer.

After interviews designed to vet the best cultural fit, Shah says new employees are told that they need to trust that their opinions are wanted and valued, no matter what their position.

"It sometimes takes a little while for them to recognize that reality, that we actually expect you to push back," Shah says. But he sees it as a trust-building exercise. As the staff is trusted with internal information, so must they trust the executive team and actually speak up without fear of getting fired.

2. Create a Place for Open Conversations.
The way to facilitate open discussions, says Shah, is to have a reliable platform so everyone can see the threads of conversations. Hubspot uses Confluence’s team collaboration software which he says draws people in to ongoing discussion about strategic plans. "One of the hardest things to do on collaboration platforms is getting people to use them," Shah explains, but they’ve made it work by reinforcing it as the central repository of all company information. Not every conversation is wiki-worthy, says Shah. IM chats serve for ancillary discussions.

3. Encourage Animated Not Heated Debate.
Also, Shah explains, Hubspot draws a distinction between heated and animated debates. Heated is argumentative and discouraged. Animated, he says, "Is when you get passionate because you care about issue" and definitely welcomed.

Finally, Shah says, it’s important to remember that no one has all the answers. "That’s the reason we don’t have a lot of closed doors here," he says, "more stupid things happen behind closed doors than happen in the sunlight."

[Image: Flickr user J E Theriot]

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2 Comments

  • Julian M Mendoza

    The points are solid, but the article title is misleading. The title takes the subordinate's perspective, but the article is really a prescriptive for the leadership - its key points are about how the Hubspot leadership has made it safe to dissent.

  • Voicing your disagreements is essentially planting a seed. That seed has the potential to grow into a deeper conversation or take a turn into unchartered territory. It's another layer of critical thinking for both you and the person you're disagreeing with. Who knows, in the end you may learn a thing or two about what their vision or thought process is.