How to handle conflicts with your boss (video transcript)

A lot of people believe that having conflict with your boss is a career limiting move. But what I’ve learned is it’s actually possible to disagree with your boss and come out being more respected and more valued afterward. In this video, I’m going to show you how to speak truth to power in a way that actually moves things forward without putting your job in jeopardy.

How do you disagree with your boss in a respectful kind of way? I get it. Having a disagreement with your boss can create a lot of anxiety. After all, from the time we’re really little we’re taught to be good and stay out of trouble. And when you’re an adult, trouble with a capital T is getting fired.

I seldom go through a week without someone saying to me, “Oh I couldn’t say that. I’d be fired.” In my 20 years of working with managers at all different levels, I can be pretty confident that that’s incredibly rare. But I get it. Just because it’s rare doesn’t mean the fear isn’t real. You need to have a picture in your mind of how a conflict or a disagreement with your boss could end with a happy ending before you’re even willing to put it on the table.

That’s what this video is about. I’m going to give you the four different tips and techniques for speaking truth to power.

1) Connect your point to the goals of your organization

First, connect your point to some overarching or important goal for your organization.

When you do that it makes it clear why this is so important that it’s worth broaching a topic that’s a little uncomfortable. It also signals to your boss why you’re raising this and reminds them of this important thing you’re all trying to accomplish together. So that’s step one. Tie whatever point you’re trying to make to a strategy, a goal, something that you’re working on together.

2. Stick to the facts

Second, stick to the facts. It’s really important that you take all judgment out of your conversations with your boss.

Often when you want to get into a disagreement with your boss it’s because you’re feeling powerful, strong emotions – but you don’t want any of that in the conversation. You want, especially if you’re describing your boss’s behavior, you want to be so sterile and careful, so that you’re just describing exactly what your boss said or did. So the second point, when you’re disagreeing with your boss, make sure that there’s no judgment, there’s no drama or over the top statements. Make it really clean, really precise and completely objective.

3. Bring in the values of your organization

The third technique in speaking truth to power is to somehow find ways to bring in the organization’s values or principles or competencies, things that are the actual agreed upon shared rules that you all live by when you work in the same organization. If you can show how raising this difficult point is consistent with what you’ve all agreed to, what it says on that brass plaque on the wall, then you’ve really got a leg to stand on when you’re raising something that’s uncomfortable to talk about.

4. Keep it civil

The fourth and really important strategy in speaking truth to power is do not come out swinging.

A fight with your boss is not the time to pull out your fancy new power poses. No, you’re actually trying to do the exact opposite. You’re trying to evoke curiosity from your boss, get them thinking about how you’re seeing the issue or what they might be missing. It’s really important when you’re disagreeing with your boss to use a lot more questions instead of statements or assertions.

The other really valuable thing about using a question is that if your boss disagrees there’s always the opportunity to back up and move in a different direction. That’s really important when you’re taking the risk to challenge your boss. So that’s number four, super important, no power poses. Instead, questions and curiosity.

Example: “Pierre’s Produce Problem”

Let me share a real example from you from a leader I met. Let’s call him Pierre.

Pierre was the head of the produce department in a grocery store chain and as such, all of the category managers for the different produce departments reported to him. Part of their roles in the organization was the category managers were the ones who got to make the decisions about the pricing of the various products. That was their job and everybody had agreed to it.

So one day I was having a conversation with Pierre and he was telling me that his boss, one of the senior people in the organization kept swooping in right over top of Pierre and changing the prices that the category managers had put in place. Pierre was steaming mad. For him this was embarrassing and plus, he just felt it wasn’t right. We said the category managers decide and then what are you doing overriding their decisions?

He was really miffed, it was having a big impact on him, so I said, “Pierre, you need to talk with him about it. He’s a good guy, go have the conversation”.

Pierre looked at me, shook his head and actually said, “Oh right, let me go dust off my resume.”

I don’t think Pierre really believed that his job was at risk, but he was frustrated and we’ve all come to using expressions like that just because it’s easy. But this was a big opportunity for Pierre to take the high road so I encouraged him and we worked a lot on how he was going to frame it.

So remember, the first step is anchoring to something that matters in the business. In this case for Pierre, this was easy because the leaders had been on record saying that they needed to spend a lot more time at the strategic level, thinking about the big issues like how are we going to combat Amazon, rather than in the minutia of changing prices on specific products. So he had something really clear to talk about. It was easy for him to talk about how all the leaders had been asked to step up.

Second, Pierre needed to find a way to be really objective about his conversation with the boss, to not put in the drama. And this was going to be a challenge because Pierre felt humiliated by his boss’s actions. He was really taking it hard the fact that the boss had overridden his decision, overridden his direct report’s decision and swooped right in. But what was really important was that he avoided saying, “When you overrode my decision,” because that’s emotional language and what a lot of leaders will perceive as drama. Don’t go there. All he needed to say was something very simple: “When you changed the price,” because that was an objective reality. When he said that to the boss the boss was going to go, “oh yeah, I changed the price.” So that second rule, so important. Makes sure that you’re very objective, no judgment.

Third, Pierre had the chance to link to the company values and that was easy in this organization. This was a very values driven organization full of really high integrity people, and integrity actually was one of their values. So he had the opportunity to say, “you know I know how important integrity is around here. So when I was feeling uncomfortable with this I really felt it was my obligation to say something”. Perfect, he had the perfect line and there the word was on the wall right beside him. Awesome.

Fourth, it was really important for Pierre to use questions rather than assertions because that would leave him a back door if it didn’t go well.

Okay, so really important link to the business somehow, keep it objective, strip out all that drama, link to the values or the other rules that are important in the organization and ask questions, not statements for that back door.

Okay, so are you curious? Here’s how Pierre positioned it:

“I understand that you changed the price of the pumpernickel that Penny has set. We had agreed that category managers were going set the prices and I know it’s really important that we all learn to step up. So I’m wondering if this is the right point at which to be overriding Penny’s pumpernickel price. What if we were to let it ride and see for a week how it goes and then maybe we could revisit the price, but that way she’ll get to see how her decisions affect things, would that be possible?”

Here’s the good news. Pierre’s boss is a really good guy and he took it really well and it was fine. But it’s just as possible that Pierre’s boss might have taken it poorly. “This is not about development and it’s not even about the price of pumpernickel, Pierre. This is about whether we’re in business a year from now. Are you crazy?”

Hmm, okay that would be bad, we can all admit. So thank goodness Pierre left the back door open, and he could simply have said something like: “You’re right.” That’s usually a good place to start. If you need to backtrack with your boss. “You’re right; I was so focused on the leadership development opportunity for Penny that I lost sight of the margin question. Okay, I’ll go back to Penny and tell her why this new price is the right price. Thanks.”

Disagreeing with your boss can be a good thing

So these scenarios come up all the time and people are irritated, frustrated, they leave their bosses making a bad call because they can’t picture a way to disagree with the boss in a way that won’t get them in trouble. So I promise you if you link it to an important business issue, if you keep it really objective instead of overdramatizing things, and if you use a question so that if it doesn’t go well you still have an escape hatch, then it’s going to be fine.

Your boss is going to come to see you as somebody with guts and courage and willing to say what needs to be said to make the business better. There are so many situations that our bosses leave us in where we’re not set up to succeed. Maybe they haven’t been clear about what they want from us and multiple times we’ve given in work and it’s been off the mark. That’s so frustrating. It’s the time to say, “okay, so I know we’re working to become more efficient in the department. So when I handed in this report, it was the third week in a row that you’ve had to make changes. What could we do differently to make sure I’m giving you the work right the first time?” There’s a good example.

It’s also common that bosses give conflicting instructions to two people on your team. And so you’re going to go off in different directions. Yes, it’s going to be completely inefficient but it’s also going to cause frustration and problems later. It’s really important that upfront you say, “okay, I know that it’s really important that sales and marketing are in lockstep on this. I heard this from you and Sam heard this. Can you clarify for us because I don’t get how those two things go together? What could we do to, can we pull everybody together and get a clearer sense of what you want?”

There are so many situations where you need to disagree with your boss on something that matters a lot. And we often focus on catastrophizing what’s going to happen when we do that. But so many times if you have a small uncomfortable conversation with your boss up front, it prevents something way more uncomfortable when you drop a ball or do the wrong work or get out of step with the rest of your team.

So there absolutely are ways to disagree with your boss. I bet you remember them all now, right?

Step one: link to strategy or something else that matters to the business.
Step two: strip out the emotion and the drama and stick to the facts.
Step three: tie to the values or something else that is language or a touchstone about what matters in your company.
Step four: question, question, question. Don’t leave yourself backed into a corner. Make sure there’s an escape route.

Three questions to ask yourself if you’re concerned

If you’re concerned about disagreeing or having an uncomfortable conversation with your boss, ask yourself these three questions:

First, is there any way I can be successful if I don’t raise this issue or am I just setting myself up for failure?
Two, will bringing this issue up now make it a lot less likely that I’m going to face negative consequences or a really unpleasant conversation later?
Three, will my teammates be really glad that I said this?

Those are just a few questions you can use to get yourself the gumption you need to raise an uncomfortable topic with your boss. Showing your boss that you’re willing to go to bat or go out on a limb for something that matters to the business is going to make them respect you more, not less. Certainly you have to choose carefully the issues that you want to raise, but for the most part it’s an important opportunity for you to challenge and ask the questions and add value for your team.

So here’s the question of the day. How could you disagree with your boss and come out being more respected than before?

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