You don’t have to accept every assignment your boss adds to your plate, nor do you have to hold back your dissenting opinions. Many employees worry that challenging a supervisor might damage their work relationships or even threaten their jobs. And in some cases, rightly or wrongly, those fears are justified.
More often than not, though, companies benefit from assertive employees (including junior ones) who offer fresh ideas, and good managers understand that. To do their own jobs well, many supervisors depend on their direct reports’ valuable feedback–just as long as it’s delivered respectfully and for the right reasons. Here’s a quick guide to disagreeing with your boss productively.
The best way to make sure your views come across tactfully is to deliver them on a basis of shared respect. If you’re new to your team, that means putting in the work to establish strong relationships before speaking up. Workplace disagreements can be very constructive if everyone involved trusts one another.
That’s true of employee-supervisor relationships, too, and the things you should do to build that trust are pretty obvious: Strive to always meet your deadlines and deliver high-quality work. Be reliable and present, showing up to work on time and putting in the extra effort when it really matters. Perhaps most importantly, do all of this with a positive attitude. This way, when it comes time to differ, you’ll already have laid the foundation to do it constructively.
Don’t just voice your disagreement right out of the gate–preface it with a positive remark. You can start with a compliment or observation about something that’s working really well. Then acknowledge that you have some concerns, too, and offer suggestions on how you think those concerns might be best addressed. It’s also okay to raise those concerns and then offer to brainstorm some solutions together. That will indicate that you’re committed to thinking through this problem collaboratively, rather than just nitpicking or pointing out a fault for your boss to go about correcting alone.
No matter what you say, it’s crucial to watch how you say it. Because you and your boss probably both care about the work you’re both doing, it’s natural to expect your boss to have some strong beliefs about the right way of doing something. This can lead to disagreements escalating into heated arguments.
So when you do have a disagreement to voice, think before you speak, then speak calmly when you do. Avoid using tones that communicate anger or annoyance, or rude body language like an eye roll or crossed arms. This is basically common sense, but in the heat of the moment, when you’re anxious to apply the brakes on something you see differently, it’s easy to forget. You don’t want to offend your colleagues or supervisor–you want to win them over.
Your supervisor is much more likely to consider your objection valuable if you have data to back it up. Disagreements based on opinion may hold some value, but you won’t “win” that argument every time. So before you enter a meeting or begin a big project, familiarize yourself with any relevant history, metrics, or stakes that may have an impact. If you find that you need to gather research before you can confidently share your views, make that clear rather than resorting to speculation.
If you approach a disagreement firmly set in your beliefs, you won’t show your boss that you can be adaptable and think critically. Genuinely listen to any counterpoints, and try to put yourself in his or her shoes if the situation calls for some extra perspective. Then allow yourself to change your opinions or ideas based on new information. This flexibility isn’t just a key to heading off a potential argument, it’s essential to problem solving–which is ultimately the whole point of speaking up in the first place.
Inevitably, you’ll need to concede some disagreements to your boss now and then, even if you sincerely believe their approach isn’t the best. It’s important to know when to back down in these situations and be able to move forward.
Should the ideas lead to a project failure, never resort to “I told you so.” Remember: A constructive, forward-thinking outlook is the basis for you being able to express differing opinions in the first place, and you don’t want to undermine it in the future. You’re all on the same team, and you want to support each other’s goals.
Despite your best efforts, disagreements can sometimes get away from you. Before you know it, the situation has deteriorated and one or both parties come out upset. If this happens, it’s not the end of the world (or your job!). But it’s important to handle the aftermath appropriately. Reflect on the conversation and determine if there was room for improvement on your behalf. Then make a thoughtful apology to anyone you want to clear the air with–your boss, especially.
Tess Pajaron has a background in business administration and management. She currently works at Open Colleges, Australia’s leading online educator, and writes frequently about careers, marketing, and leadership.