CAREER: How to Disagree With Your Boss and Keep Your Job
When you know you're right and your boss is wrong, figuring out whether to speak up can be tricky. But if you handle it adeptly, disagreeing with your boss can actually make you a more valuable employee. Of course, if you do it wrong, it can make you a less valuable employee, or even an employee without a job – so it's important to do it right.
Too often, people who disagree with their boss handle it badly in one of two ways: They either stew about it silently and don't speak up at all, or they disregard their manager's instructions and do things their own way without surfacing the conflict.
Both of these are bad options. If you disagree with your boss over something substantive, it's worth speaking up about your own point of view. Here's how.
1. Recognize that you might each have different information. Workplace disagreements often arise when two people have different pieces of information about something. It's possible that you know something your manager doesn't, so figure out what that might be, tell her, and see if that changes anything. At the same time, be open to new information she might give you that might change your own viewpoint.
For instance, if you're frustrated that your manager hasn't approved your request to bring in a temp to help process a backlog of database entries, it's possible that your manager doesn't realize that the urgency you feel is because the backlog will grow even larger when the results of next month's customer mailing start coming in and your assistant goes on a long-planned vacation. Alerting her to this context might change her stance. Or, alternately, you might be the one who doesn't realize a crucial piece of information – such as that the department is already over-budget. Talking it out can help bring this type of information to the surface.
2. Ask for a limited-time experiment.
If step No. 1 doesn't resolve the disagreement and you feel very strongly about your viewpoint, in some contexts it makes sense to say something like, "I really feel strongly about this. Would you be willing to allow me to try it my way and we can see how it goes?" (You want to do that sparingly though. You shouldn't greet every decision with push back – save this for things that are truly important to you.)
3. Pay attention to your tone.
Tone really matters when you're disagreeing with your matters – it's the difference between sounding adversarial and difficult and sounding collaborative. You want your tone to be one of collaborative problem-solving, not one of frustration, venting or hostility. And you'll get the best results if you frame the conversation in a way that demonstrates that you understand that in the end your boss is the one who will need to make the final call.
4. Decide how much you care.
Once you've spoken up about your viewpoint, your manager may or may not come around to your way of seeing things. If she doesn't, then at that point you need to decide how important the issue is to you. If you disagree strongly enough, you can always exercise your independence by leaving – but in general, it usually makes sense to accept that sometimes you and your boss will simply see things differently (just as you probably don't agree with any other person 100 percent of the time), and that's mostly OK.
Now, one last note about all of this: All the advice above assumes that your boss is sane and reasonable. If that's not the case, and if you know from experience that dissent is likely to be punished, then modify your actions accordingly.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.