There are few occasions where having high emotional intelligence (EQ) comes in handy more than when you disagree with your boss. But it’s hardly the only one. Many of us would even happily trade off a few IQ points in exchange for some extra EQ. In fact, people with very high IQs but lower emotional intelligence may be more likely to upset their bosses by focusing too much on the logical side of an argument while ignoring the social and emotional dimensions.
In fact, the most effective approach to disagreeing with your manager should really be based on EQ rather than IQ. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that employees with higher emotional intelligence are generally more rewarding to deal with, which is why they’re more often promoted than those who aren’t. In a world that still bases so many crucial career decisions on a single subjective factor in the eyes of one’s direct manager, likability often trumps ability and work ethic.
Highly emotionally intelligent people are generally better at avoiding disagreements in the first place, including with their bosses. In fact, agreeableness is a major facet of EQ, so people who are higher on that scale tend to be more diplomatic, socially sensitive, and conflict averse, even if it requires a certain degree of falseness.
This is probably the most important lesson, and it was well understood by the great Dale Carnegie, who pointed out that the only way to win an argument is to avoid it. “If you lose it, you lose it,” he wrote, “and if you win it, you lose it.” Why was he right? Because winning a dispute often means irritating the person you defeated.
To be sure, there is nothing tactical or strategic that highly emotionally intelligent people do in order to avoid arguments more often; it’s usually just a matter of temperament. They’re typically more cool-headed, phlegmatic, and polite, so their tolerance for provocation–including bad management–is just higher. If you want to develop those characteristics, though, you need to identify your stress triggers and inhibit your knee-jerk reactions as much as you can.
For example, when you check your email right after waking up or just before going to sleep, it may be tempting to respond to that annoying request from your boss immediately. But the best thing you can do is to ignore it, and let a few hours go by. Or if your boss says something that irritates you in a meeting, it’s often best to just pretend it didn’t happen, especially if you’re in the company of other people.
Failing that, here are four other suggestions you may want to consider. These are all quite common among high-EQ scorers, so implementing them may help you emulate their success.
In any conversation, and especially during disagreements, style matters much more than substance. You may think that your content is key, but it’s really how you convey it. Emotionally intelligent people are able to express a difference of opinion in a calm and composed manner, no matter what it consists of.
They often begin by aligning themselves with their boss around many other points, and then gently dive into the contested issue. In fact, they’re often so subtle that their bosses may not even realize that they disagree with them (this can actually be a downside to a very high EQ). In any event, this approach helps you test the waters and assess whether it’s really a good time to put your own views out there.
Although we are often impressed by arrogant leaders, we tend to prefer dealing directly with humbler people. This is particularly true when we’re in the midst of an argument. Highly emotionally intelligent people are able to present their opinions in a modest, self-deprecating way. In doing so, they make it clear that they aren’t trying to disrespect or question their bosses, they’re just sharing a concern.
So practice phrases that show respect without veering off into obsequiousness: “I might be wrong here, but . . . ” or “Forgive me for raising this point, but . . . ” The goal is to be polite, sound genuinely considerate, and make it clear that you don’t intend the concern you’re raising as a personal critique.
Of course, if your boss has a rather low EQ, not even this will save you. Still, a little humility is more likely to succeed than an arrogant approach. You don’t want to outright tell your boss they’re wrong or suggest you know more about the issue than they do–even if that’s the case. Being tactful often means being humble.
Highly emotionally intelligent people avoid having major disagreements with their bosses in front of others. Saving face is important, no matter what happens. If you do have to hash it out with your boss, you should do it in private–especially when you’re likely to win the argument.
Few things will demoralize your manager more than having their authority challenged in front of subordinates. Likewise, an in-person or phone conversation is usually preferable than an email discussion, since emails never die–they can be shared with anyone. Even if your boss prefers communicating via email–and even if you do, too–it’s important to maximize privacy whenever you’re bringing up a sensitive issue.
If the best way to win an argument is to avoid it, the second is to pretend to lose it–in fact, it amounts to basically the same thing.
That may be tough to hear, but emotionally intelligent people notice when they reach their limits of persuasion and give up before the argument escalates. This doesn’t mean backing down any time the going gets tough–it just means recognizing when this particular conversation is no longer the best way to get what you’re trying to achieve.
So if your boss seems immune to your arguments, the best thing you can do is to pretend you’re on the same page, then consider some more productive alternatives to making your concerns understood–if there are any. The downside here is that your inability to persuade your boss may lead to a bad decision you’d hoped to avoid, but at least you tried. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
In general, it’s helpful to appear as though you care less about the specifics of the dispute but care deeply about your boss. It’s a bit like disagreeing with someone who’s interviewing you for a job–you want to showcase your thinking, but what you’re really committed to are the great things you can do together as as a team.