MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you disagree with your boss? is written by Liz Wiseman, President of Wiseman Group.
Let’s face it; disagreeing with your boss is dangerous. And, it’s likely to go as well as telling a toddler that he can’t have something he wants. Your boss will probably throw an adult tantrum, pout, or dig in her heels. Even when you win, you lose. But, you can’t be a valuable professional or a strong leader yourself without speaking up when your boss is fixated on a hair-brained idea. So what do you do?
Instead of disagreeing with higher ups, help them consider another point of view – perhaps a new way of looking at the situation or a different path to get what they want. By not outright disagreeing with them, you keep them out of defense mode and provide a safe way to change their minds. My mother (a brilliant teacher and school principal) once told me, “Always give kids a way out – a way for them to do the right thing.” The same is true for senior managers.
Here are a few ways you can create intellectual safety and help people see another point of view:
1. “Yes, and…” – Phil Wilson was the head of HR for both Steve Jobs at NEXT and Larry Ellison at Oracle – a role where he was often the one hitting the brakes while one of these mercurial leaders was hitting the gas. Rather than tell them “no,” he learned to respond with “Yes, we can do that, and here are some of the consequences…” It opened up a dialogue and allowed the CEO to think through the downsides of his own ideas and arrive at better solutions.
2. Ask questions– Instead of dissenting, ask questions that help your boss think through both the upsides and downsides of her ideas. Ask about her fundamental objectives. Once you are clear on what she really wants, you can talk through alternative ways to help her get what she needs.
3. Retreat and regroup– Diffuse the tension by taking time to think through the ideas more carefully. One of my assignments as an executive coach was to help a senior leader at Apple get “Steve ready,” meaning prepared to present to Steve Jobs, which was often tricky! I shared a strategy I had learned from other successful leaders at Apple: When you and Steve are at an impasse, don’t argue. Indicate that you need time to think through his ideas and come back with a new plan. This demonstration of listening and learning opens up new alternatives.
4. Remember: the boss might be right– Just because you don’t agree with the boss’s idea doesn’t mean it’s wrong. When I was an executive at Oracle, Larry Ellison asked me to reduce my team by 350 people and then rebuild with a smaller team. This seemed arbitrary and harsh. I retreated, regrouped (gaining support from other executives) and then renegotiated to reduce our workforce by far fewer people. He agreed to my plan. Initially, I was considered a hero by the other executives. But, later when I saw the organization struggle to change, I realized Larry had been right. I wished I had been slower to disagree and faster to learn from his point of view.
When you need to disagree with your boss, be savvy and avoid a head-to-head competition. Help your boss consider new data and arrive at new conclusions. When you’ve managed this well, the new point of view will quickly become his or her own. And, instead of being a Debbie Downer, you become a thought partner – a far more valuable role. And who can disagree with that?