How to Disagree without Being Perceived as the Naysayer on Your Team

Tense meeting with coworkers visibly disagreeing with each other

I once walked into what I expected to be a fairly tense meeting, and the senior executive in the wrong pointed at me, and said: "I don't care what he says, I disagree." That was the first and only time I've ever been disagreed with, without opening my mouth. 

While you will never come off in a positive light if you adopt the disagree before knowing what he'll say tactic of the executive above, it is possible and necessary to express disagreement from time-to-time.

Doing it properly and professionally, however, is critical to your success. This article offers ideas on how to navigate this sometimes awkward issue. 

When No One Disagrees:

Many firms and many workplace cultures discourage disagreement, particularly with senior management ideas and plans. That's too bad. Because when disagreement is suppressed, firms and teams end up making flawed decisions or following paths that no one outside of the boss actually agrees with following. Whether senior leaders actively discourage disagreement or their (or your) management behaviors suggest that disagreement will not be tolerated, the suppression of ideas is part of the formula for failure. 

Foster a Collaborative Company Culture

It is the leader's job to provide the vision for the group. A good executive must have a dream and the ability to get the company to support that dream. But it is not enough to merely have the dream.

The leader must also provide the framework by which the people in the organization can help achieve the dream. This is called company culture.

When your company culture allows people to challenge ideas, suggestions, and plans, you create an organization of thinking, committed people capable of producing the kind of innovation and productivity required to succeed today.

If your company culture does not allow for constructive dissent, if people who suggest alternatives are castigated for not being "team players," you produce an environment of fear, stagnation, and antipathy. Not allowing appropriate dissent will kill your company.

Allow for Discussion and Debate 

You're a smart manager. You encourage your people to challenge you and suggest alternatives. But are you a good subordinate? Do you challenge your boss? Or do you sit back and protect your job by agreeing with everything the boss suggests? Mindless agreement won't protect your job, at least not for long.

Every manager has a boss. Our responsibility to our bosses is to be honest with them and to tell them what we really think, even if we disagree. Perhaps especially if we disagree. You and your peers need to discuss issues openly, frankly, and with the best interests of your area clearly visible. You need to give the boss as much information and as many options as possible. Don't be afraid to fight hard for what you believe to be right.

Be professional about it, but be candid too.

However, once the boss has made a decision, the discussion and dissent must stop. Once the decision has been made, you have an obligation to support your boss in that decision. You expect it of your people; you should do no less.

8 Tips to Help You Disagree Without Being Disagreeable

You think your position is right. You want what is best for your people. You want things done in the way that works best for your department. So you argue your points strongly. That's good, but don't overdo it. You won't win every battle. After all, your boss is looking after the best interest of his or her entire organization, not just your part of it.

Instead of establishing a reputation as a stubborn naysayer, try these tactics to help you disagree without being disagreeable:

  1. Ask clarifying questions about the proposal in front of you. Make certain you and others clearly understand the issue before you voice your objections. 
  2. Assess the framing of the issue. If the situation was positioned as a solution to a problem, try and encourage the team to think about solutions as if the issue were a potential benefit. If you frame the same issue as either a positive or negative, you may very well develop a completely unique solution for each situation. 
  3. Strive to understand the assumptions behind the current position or idea. Listen carefully and if you hear a flawed assumption, politely suggest that it be reviewed. 
  4. Don't make your disagreement personal, focus on the business issues at hand. No one appreciates a personal attack.  
  5. Instead of suggesting yours is the only answer, position it as an option to be considered. 
  6. When describing your approach, treat the other idea respectfully, while carefully describing the benefits that yours offers above and beyond the other approach. 
  7. Ask for an opportunity to prove your case with a trail run of your idea. Many executives will appreciate the spirit of giving someone a shot to prove their point. 
  8. Don't expect to win them all! You are in a marathon, not a sprint. 

The Bottom Line: 

It is important to foster a culture in your company where differing opinions are encouraged. Be certain as a manager that you are not overtly or inadvertently suppressing the free exchange of ideas. If everyone always agrees with you, it's a sign that people are not comfortable sharing their true views. And most of all, learn to disagree without positioning it as a life and death issue and alienating people in the process. After all, no one wants to be that executive mentioned in the opening of this article. 


Updated by Art Petty

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