Just the thought of disagreeing with your boss might make your heart race and your palms sweat.  You imagine how things could play out and every daydreamed scenario ends with proof that disagreeing was a career limiting move.  The result is that you keep quiet on issues that are important and you fail to add your full value.

If that’s the case for you, it’s time to change the script. Here are a few different options for how to disagree in a way that will have a happy ending for you and your boss.

  1. Frame your comments around something that is important to your boss. If you think that a proposed process is too cumbersome, talk about your concern in terms of efficiency. “I know efficiency is a priority for you, I see a couple of steps in this process that take up time without adding much value.”
  2. Keep your comments objective and use credible evidence to support your case. “You’re proposing that we raise prices by 7%. Based on our volume decline after the price increase of 5% in 2012, I’m concerned that 7% will actually lead to lower revenues.” Or, if you want to be less assertive, you could say “What did we learn about price sensitivity when we increased prices by 5% in 2012?”
  3. Evoke curiosity and generate a good discussion by being clear about where you came to a different conclusion than your boss. “I’m surprised that you proposed a shorter timeline for the IT project. I reviewed the project plan and I didn’t see opportunities to cut. Would you walk me through where you see potential time savings?”
  4. Allude to your company’s ground rules or values as a reminder of why your comments are appropriate. “Because we value diverse perspectives, I think it’s important for us to consider our options before deciding which way to go. One idea that we haven’t discussed is…”

A few additional tips:

Talk about it

Where possible, have a private conversation with your boss about differences of opinion. Ask about your boss’ preferences such as “What are you counting on me to deliver?” “How should I approach it if I disagree with you on something?” “What types of issues would you like me to raise in our meetings and what types of things would you prefer I address in private?”  

Go easy

If you haven’t had a frank conversation about disagreements with your boss, then stick to the more conservative options. Save substantive disagreements for private settings, keep the content very objective, keep the tone open and curious rather than assertive.

See how you did

Find a time to get some feedback after you disagree with your boss. “You and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on the price issue yesterday. How did my comments in the meeting land? How would you like me to handle similar situations in the future?”

Disagreeing with your boss might feel intimidating. It’s important that you do it anyway.  If you do it carefully and respectfully (no eye-rolling, exasperated sighs, or raised voice), your boss is more likely to value you, not less. If it goes badly, each of the approaches I shared leaves room to gracefully fall into line with your boss with little or no harm done.

Do you have a horror story about disagreeing with a boss?  Change the name to protect the guilty and share your story in the comments below.

Further Reading

Dealing with a Boss with Double Standards

Standing up to Powerful Bullies

When your Team Needs a New Leader