When to disagree with your boss (and how to do it respectfully)

disagreement in the office

Is it possible to disagree with higher-ups without facing repercussions? Absolutely. We’ll show you how to navigate these tricky situations in a calm and collected way below.

Even at the best of times, workplace disagreements can be difficult. But if you need to take issue with your boss, it can be even harder to navigate.

If you go in without a game plan, you might come off as combative and disrespectful. At the same time, not saying anything may also have its consequences.

In a perfect world, we could all point out when our manager has put a foot wrong without dealing with the repercussions. But unfortunately, that’s not the case. Disagreeing with the person who most likely had a hand in hiring you (and who may also be able to fire you) requires tact and respect.

If you’ve stressed over creating unnecessary conflict with your boss in the past, then this article is for you. Here, we’ll show you how to communicate your point of view to leaders in a respectful, considered way – without putting your job at risk in the process.

When to disagree with your boss

Like any other workplace disagreement, there’s a time and a place for voicing concerns to your boss. Being selective is important here.

If it’s a minor issue, you probably shouldn’t try taking your boss to task. And though we’d rather not use the word battle in this context, picking your battles certainly plays a part in the art of boss disagreements.

conflict in the office

So, when should you express a disagreement? Generally, it might be worth speaking up in these instances:

• When you feel strongly about something

• When you have expertise you can share

• When something may have consequences your boss isn’t aware of

• When you have information that may change your boss’ mind about something

• When you’re concerned about legal, safety or ethical repercussions

• When you feel you have to speak up, always consider when the best place to do that would be. Would a team meeting where everyone’s pitching in ideas and making suggestions be acceptable? With other colleagues around, you may be able to take the edge off the thornier aspects of your disagreement. But if you know it’ll be met with resistance in a public forum, then you may want to have a private chat with them instead.

Don’t wait too long to make your voice heard either. Dredging up a bone of contention after the opportunity to act has passed won’t help anyone. Always try to respond to the issue in a timely fashion if you can.

colleagues having a discussion

How to respectfully disagree with your boss

Start off on the right foot

If your leader doesn’t like the direct approach, then you’ll need to soften the blow when approaching them. Instead of diving headfirst into the disagreement, make it a point to state something positive.

The last thing you want is for them to immediately put their guard up. If they’ve suggested a new process, highlight the areas you think will work before pointing out the parts that might need improving.

Find the right tone of voice

If it’s an emotionally charged situation, then tempers could flare. An angry or defensive approach is unlikely to go down well with most managers. If you want the conversation to go well, then it’s important to keep your tone in check.

You want the content of what you’re saying to be the focus, rather than the delivery. Remain calm and polite, but not so much that you seem detached from the situation.

Keep your credibility intact by avoiding hedging and over-apologising too. Likewise, at no point should you resort to personal slights or attacks when you come to talk to them. You can expect things to fall on deaf ears if you do.

businesswoman speaking to group

Build trust with them

When there’s trust between you and your manager, persuading each other to see things through your respective lenses becomes much easier. But trust doesn’t necessarily come easily – and you shouldn’t expect to get your own way if trust doesn’t exist between the pair of you.

One way of building trust is through your own performance. When you can demonstrate a strong work ethic, stick to deadlines, and go above and beyond when needed, it shows you’re a reliable member of the team. And most importantly, it shows respect for the working relationship between the two of you which can be hugely valuable down the line – especially if you need to disagree with them at some point.

Ask the right questions

Framing things as questions takes the emphasis off what might be seem like adversarial statements and shows you’re more interested in fostering a discussion instead. They’re also a great way of understanding your boss’s motivations – information that may be enough to defuse the disagreement from the get go.

More than anything, it’s important to have your facts straight. You don’t want to be caught off guard just because your own argument is half baked.

businesswoman talking to her colleague

Inviting your manager to share their thoughts creates conversation, making things seem less one-sided and more like you’re making a suggestion. So be sure to sand down any elements that your manager may find contentious.

And remember, the more information you can equip yourself with by asking questions, the better the position you can put yourself in when stating your case.

Focus on the outcome

When expressing your disagreement, you should always back it up by emphasising outcomes that could support the success of the company. Your manager will need some convincing, and here’s where you can really get them on your side.

If you have a strong argument with actionable solutions, then your concerns are more likely to validate your argument. And crucially, it shows you aren’t simply trying to undermine their authority.

Respect their final decision

Ultimately, it’s your boss who will decide whether to go with your suggestion. If things don’t go your way, then you must prepare for and respect such a decision.

Rather than insisting on going with your idea, now is the time to let it go and move on. You don’t want to be seen as someone who’s rigid and inflexible. Show your manager you can be adaptable by working with their chosen approach – they’ll take note of the way you respond, for better or worse.

And don’t forget to use it as an opportunity to learn – even if it’s something you disagree with.

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