How to disagree with your boss or someone more powerful than you at work?
Updated: Dec 9, 2022
Disagreements at work are often inevitable. It is unlikely that your thoughts, opinions, and values will match those of your colleagues or boss, because everyone has their own beliefs and ideas.
Conflicts often lead to productive outcomes because you can voice your opinion and make the best decision possible. But this conversation requires work.
It is challenging enough to navigate a disagreement with your coworker, but more so if it is someone more powerful than you.
Imagine the scenario where your boss has recently presented a brilliant initiative that he is excited about. But you have reason to believe that this project is unreasonable and will not succeed. So what can you do in such a situation? Should you tell your boss that his way of thinking is flawed? How can you disagree with your boss while maintaining a positive relationship with him?
Why is it difficult to disagree with your boss?
You may feel the urge to argue with your boss or someone in a position of authority for a variety of reasons. For most of us, however, this is a difficult and nerve-wracking affair.
We all have a natural tendency to hesitate to disagree with someone more powerful than us because of an innate need to keep ourselves safe. You quickly begin to consider all the dire ramifications of arguing with your boss.
You start to worry that your boss might think you are annoying, dislike you, or, in the worst case, even fire you. Most people keep their displeasure to themselves and comply with their boss' requests to avoid these potentially undesirable repercussions. Most employees think that keeping your dissatisfaction to yourself may not be the most productive outcome, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
To navigate such difficult situations, you need to develop the ability to disagree with someone more powerful than you in order to succeed in your job and make a positive contribution to your company.
It is also important to understand the difference between "respectful disagreement" and "disagreement".
So how can you thread through disagreement with your boss in a constructive way?
1. Be realistic about all possible situations that could occur
Most of us worry about what can go wrong when we voice our disagreements, when we have to deal with someone who ranks higher than we do, as our first reaction. The problem is that most of us tend to predict the worst. When you disagree with your boss, you immediately begin to imagine the worst-case scenario that could occur.
Realistically, things probably will not turn out that way. It is unlikely that your boss will fire you or hate you forever just because you voiced your disagreement, especially if you did so politely.
Therefore, be honest about what is the worst thing that can happen if you say something and realize that it will not have a negative impact in the long run.
According to Harvard Business Review, the most fantastic way to calm your nerves is to consider the worst-case scenarios and the risks you must endure if you do not speak up.
2. Choose the right time and the right moment to voice your disagreement
Sometimes expressing disapproval is not the problem. It's when and where you do it that matters. It is best to think carefully before you express your opinion.
It is only advisable to express your disagreement immediately if it is urgent. Spend some time considering the issue. Try to understand the problem from others' perspectives too. Perhaps they have thought of something that you haven't right now.
Waiting before disagreeing allows you to gather more evidence to support your position. However, if quick action is required, you can object without delay because there is little sense in opposing later after the incorrect action has been taken.
Consider also where you disagree. The place is as important as time. There is nothing improper with speaking up in a team meeting when everyone is welcome to provide their opinions and recommendations. However, disagreeing with someone superior to you in a public situation without a conversation could embarrass them and make them feel offended.
So think again whether you want to express your opinion in the meeting where your boss proudly presents his ingenious new initiative and everyone else applauds her highness!
3. Be sure to start with something positive
Just because you disagree with someone does not mean their idea is so stupid that you can not find a single pearl of wisdom in it.
Therefore, you should not simply go on the offensive to make your point. It will only get the conversation off to a bad start.
Instead, begin by stating how you can understand the point of view of the person in power. By doing so, you show that you understand their justification and prevent the dialog from degenerating into a debate about what they mean.
Mention anything you enjoy about their perspective or idea after describing how you interpret it, and use that as the basis for your suggestion.
When you express your disagreement this way, the conversation sounds amicable and productive rather than accusatory.
4. Be sure to choose a common goal
When you disagree with someone more powerful than you, they may become defensive because they perceive your disapproval as a threat to their objectives. Unlike the content of your disagreement, your perceived goal is more likely to elicit a defensive response.
Therefore, you must present your point of view in a way that shows that you and the person in power share a common goal if you want them to consider it. Think for a second about what matters most to the person before expressing your opinion. Is it ensuring the project is completed on time? Is it improving the quality of the project?
Do not expect your boss to understand that you are on the same team without further explanation. Instead, put your point in context to show that you care about your boss's goals. This way, your boss will perceive you as an employee looking for the most effective strategy to achieve a common goal, not as a difficult employee.
Be sure to clearly articulate the benefits of your proposal and how they relate to the goals of the person in power.
5. Make sure to ask for permission to disagree
On the surface this seems absurd, but it's a clever way to argue with someone who has higher authority than you. If you disagree with someone who has power over you, he is likely to believe that you are trying to challenge his position. You give him control and "psychological safety" by asking his permission to disagree with you.
By saying something along the lines of "I admire the goal of improving the customer experience, but I have reasons to believe that this is not the best way to do it," you can achieve agreement to a dissenting opinion. I'd like to describe my reasoning. Is that okay?" Laying out your words in this way will make the person in power feel like they are still in control and feel better.
You'll feel more assured once they agree to let you express your disapproval because you'll know you're not doing it suddenly or against their preferences.
6. Always maintain composure and stay calm.
It is typical to feel anxious about the perceived risk of disagreeing with your boss. Your face may become crimson, your heart may beat fast, and you may sweat profusely. However, you must maintain your composure so that your boss will take you seriously.
When you argue with someone more powerful than you, your body language reveals that you are afraid. The other person might think you are unsure of what you are saying, which makes it less likely they'll listen to you carefully.
Take a few deep breaths to relax before you speak, and then speak slowly and deliberately when you do. Even if you are nervous inside, speaking slowly will make you seem more confident.
7. Be sure to resist judgment
When expressing your dissenting point of view, it is important that you control your wording. Even if your boss's strategy or approach seems naïve, ill-considered, or short-sighted, refrain from using such judgmental language when expressing your concerns. After all, your boss could easily misunderstand these remarks or even take them personally and get irritated.
You should stick to discussing facts and avoid judgmental phrases. Rephrase your words before saying them out loud so that the person in charge does not feel belittled.
For example, instead of saying, "Thinking we can complete this contract by the end of the year is naïve. We have completed two other identical contracts that took us at least two months each," say, "This time frame seems a bit unrealistic. Could we reconsider it?"
You should be careful that your words are not influenced by your feelings when you express your concerns. Your boss' views, opinions, or suggestions may have aroused strong feelings in you, but when expressing your concerns, you should rely solely on logic and reasoning. This strengthens your arguments and reduces the likelihood that your counterpart will take your dispute personally.
8. Be a great listener
Since conflict is the way our minds naturally interpret disagreements, you may be so preoccupied with defending your point of view that you stop paying attention to what your boss is saying. In contrast, you can hear them out to prepare your arguments in response to what they have to say, rather than listening to them to understand their point of view.
To have a fruitful conversation, it would be helpful if you listened to your counterpart's words and adjusted your body language accordingly. Otherwise, your counterpart might take this as disrespectful because your boss has more authority than you.
So pay attention to their counter arguments and points of view. Listen carefully to what they have in mind and then take a stand at the right time.
9. Be sure to use more "I" statements
Think about the following two claims:
"You are speaking without knowledge. You'll make it hard for us to finish the project by the deadline if we follow your advice."
"I don't believe this will succeed at all. I don't think we'll be able to finish the project by the deadline if we take this course of action."
Although they both express the same thing, one is harsher than the other. The pronoun "you" conveys an impression of a personal attack on the other person.
Naturally, you want to avoid putting yourself in a situation where the stronger person feels that you are attacking them directly. However, by using "I" statements, you can convey the same meaning without sounding confrontational. Even a tiny adjustment can significantly affect the other party's interpretation of your message.
10. Always remain humble
Refrain from imposing your opinion or point of view on your boss or supervisor just because you disagree with him or her.
Being pushy is often seen as disrespectful. No matter how well you have researched your thought, it is still an opinion and not the absolute truth.
Therefore, it is advisable to make it clear from the outset that you only want to make your opinion known.
Humility and composure when expressing your opinion give it great power, especially in front of your boss.
11. Be aware that they have the final say in this matter
Even if you disagree, the decision to accept or reject your ideas, opinions or suggestions rests with the person in charge.
After voicing your concerns, it is important that you respect the person's authority. Saying something like, "That's just my opinion," can help you do that.
It is up to you to decide how to proceed, or "I know you will decide how to proceed in this matter" By saying something like this, you show that you have no intention of undermining their authority. It also reminds you that people have options.
Suppose you stick to your position and emphasize the need for your recommendation or suggestion in such a situation. Unfortunately, this will do you no good. Your boss will not only stick to his original approach, but you will also lose his respect.
You should respect their decision, even if it differs from yours, because they have the final say and are in a position to do so.
For most people, speaking up and voicing disagreement with the boss, someone in power or other authority is enough to cause fear.
Still, it's important to know how to argue with someone who has more power than you is a vital skill, and in most cases, it does not have the negative impact you might imagine.
However, it would be best if you would still behave respectfully. You can disagree with your superiors but still maintain your friendly relations with them and earn their respect.