Disagreeing with the boss can be agreeable for your career

Years ago on the playground, I remember that it was a punishable offense to push someone. Today, ironically enough, it is considered the right thing to do in the workplace.


“Pushing back” is the term I hear a lot these days. It refers to disagreeing with someone and saying so. In fact, in many workplaces where cultures are transforming from “yes, sir,” to “I’m not sure that’s the right way to go,” pushing back is considered a requirement for moving up.


In the past, employees were to be seen and not heard. Then the concept of empowerment dawned and suggestion boxes were put up in the cafeteria. In the seventies and eighties, quality circles began to form, and management began to realize that employees really had some great improvements to offer. The nineties brought the next evolution, and employee surveys and focus groups began to proliferate and process improvement became the norm. Today, if employees don’t speak up when they disagree, or offer an honest opinion to make an improvement, they are not considered promotable.


But pushing back isn’t as crude as the term might suggest. Tact and diplomacy still count. And while upper management values employees’ opinions, knowing when and how to offer them, is part art and part science.


Here are some do’s and don’ts for pushing back:


There is more power in speaking up when you disagree with a senior manager than in just rolling over.

I observed the value of voicing my honest feelings when I worked in corporate America. I started writing my column in 1982 and five years later, it occurred to me that I probably was pretty marketable, since I had developed a following outside of my company. That gave me the freedom to speak the truth when senior management asked me for my opinion. I figured, “What’s the worst thing that they can do…fire me?” Interestingly, what happened was a surprise. The more straightforward I became, the more my opinion was sought out and my career took off. Now, as a consultant, I find that my business grows when I push back on my clients to help them make good decisions. Smart executives know that “Yes Men” are good for the ego and bad for business.


Find out the person’s desired goal before you disagree with their ideas.

Too often, we think we know what they want and jump in before we have all the facts. We’ve stopped listening and we are thinking through our own response. If you find yourself silently disagreeing with a senior manager, it should be your cue to tune in and listen carefully before you speak up. Ask a lot of questions and check to make sure you understand what the person wants. “So, you want to improve our Customer Service Reps’ responsiveness on the telephone. Is that right?” Once the person is sure you understand he or she will be more willing to listen to a different idea.


Think out loud and point out both the advantages and disadvantages of the idea.

If you take the person along on a mental journey, evaluating the pro’s and con’s out loud, it will help the person discover the downside to their idea without you saying, “That won’t work.” It’s much easier for them to hear, “Well, if you do establish a policy that they have to answer the phone by the third ring, they will be faster to pick up the phone, but some of the negatives of that could be…”


Put yourself in the person’s shoes and think of their vested interest.

This goes beyond the pro’s and con’s to the emotional and personal interests of the person whose idea you disagree with. “I know one of your interests is to improve morale around here. I think if we got some Customer Service Rep focus groups together, and asked them what they think would improve their responsiveness to customers, it would improve morale. I think they would really appreciate you for asking them for their ideas, instead of giving them another policy to implement on top of an already overloaded day.”


Pushing back doesn’t mean pushing down. It means learning how to frame your opinion so that it can be heard by people above you and all around you.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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