How to Disagree with Your Boss


If you really think your ideas could help the company run better, don't keep quiet. But leave your emotions, and your ego, at the door.


Nov 03 2003 By Anne Fisher



Dear Annie:

I recently started working for a division head who has been doing things the same old way for a very long time. (He's been here about 20 years. I just started in August.) I have a few thoughts about how we could improve some of our procedures to serve customers better and save time and money, but I hesitate to suggest these because my boss has a reputation for not listening to new ideas. He has been known to blow up at people who disagree with him, especially when they are new employees who haven't (in his words) "learned the ropes" yet. Any suggestions on how to approach him, or should I just keep quiet for now? - New Kid on the Block


Dear New Kid:

If you really think your ideas could help the business run better, don't keep quiet. "When you disagree, it should be because you are convinced that your position will be better for the company and for the boss--and that's what you need to convey," says Robert Schaffer, a principal at leadership-development consulting firm Robert H. Schaffer & Associates (


But keep in mind that some people harbor resentment of anyone with authority over them, says Schaffer, and they have trouble speaking up without sending the unspoken message: "How did anyone so inept get your job?" Other people lack confidence, so they approach the boss with an attitude that says: "I'm really not sure I'm right about this, but..." Says Schaffer: "Most bosses will pick up on these signals and react accordingly. So, before you assume that any difficulties arise from your division head's inability to tolerate disagreement, think about what kind of signals you may be sending."


Also pay attention to "what you convey about winning or losing the debate," he says. "If you signal too much glee when you win the point, or too much disappointment when you lose, you force the boss to worry about how you're going to react, rather than focusing on the merits of what you're saying."


To test the waters, "ask your boss straightforwardly if he's open to disagreement," Schaffer suggests. For example, say, "I have a couple of questions about the Pomfret account. Are you interested in hearing them, or have you already locked up your decision on it?" Or try an even safer approach: Send an e-mail, or leave a voice-mail message saying, "I have some questions on the Pomfret deal. Give me a call if you'd like to hear about them." If you get no response, "you'll know the boss doesn't want to have that discussion, and you've made it easy for him to send that message to you," Schaffer says.


In their book Talk Your Way to the Top: How to Address Any Audience Like Your Career Depends On It (McGraw-Hill, $14.95), authors Kevin Daley and Laura Daley-Caravella - a father-daughter communications-coaching team-include a whole chapter called "How to Disagree with Your Boss Without Getting Fired." You may want to check it out, since it outlines a clear five-step strategy for getting your ideas across to even the most stubborn boss. Briefly, it goes like this: First, ask questions (and take notes), to firm up your understanding of why things are currently done the way they are. Second, paraphrase what your boss has told you, both to make sure you've got it right and to show that you respect what he's saying. Then, tie your own idea to what you've just learned about the boss's needs and concerns. By doing this, the authors write, "you allow your boss to see your idea through his or her own lens." Next, ask an open question like "What do you think?" to get your boss's reaction. This helps you "avoid the deadly word 'no' and keep your boss feeling very much in charge of the decision, while you are still managing the interaction," they say. And finally, thank your boss for being willing to have the discussion. If he knows you appreciate the effort, he'll be more willing to make it again next time.


What you don't want is to let your ego, and your frustration with your boss's intransigence, get in the way-as Daley admits he once did when challenging a supervisor who was at least as set in his ways as your boss seems to be. "Why start a war?" Daley asks. "The right way to disagree is to replace any pattern of confrontation with a strategy that builds your credibility while improving your working relationship." Good luck.


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