how to disagree with your boss and keep your job

When you know you’re right and your boss is wrong, figuring out whether to speak up can be tricky. But if you handle it adeptly, disagreeing with your boss can actually make you a more valuable employee. Of course, if you do it wrong, it can make you a less valuable employee, or even an employee without a job – so it’s important to do it right.

Too often, people who disagree with their boss handle it badly in one of two ways: They either stew about it silently and don’t speak up at all, or they disregard their manager’s instructions and do things their own way without surfacing the conflict.

Both of these are bad options. If you disagree with your boss over something substantive, it’s worth speaking up about your own point of view. Here’s how.

1. Recognize that you might each have different information. Workplace disagreements often arise when two people have different pieces of information about something. It’s possible that you know something your manager doesn’t, so figure out what that might be, tell her, and see if that changes anything. At the same time, be open to new information she might give you that might change your own viewpoint.

For instance, if you’re frustrated that your manager hasn’t approved your request to bring in a temp to help process a backlog of database entries, it’s possible that your manager doesn’t realize that the urgency you feel is because the backlog will grow even larger when the results of next month’s customer mailing start coming in and your assistant goes on a long-planned vacation. Alerting her to this context might change her stance. Or, alternately, you might be the one who doesn’t realize a crucial piece of information – such as that the department is already over-budget. Talking it out can help bring this type of information to the surface.

2. Ask for a limited-time experiment. If step No. 1 doesn’t resolve the disagreement and you feel very strongly about your viewpoint, in some contexts it makes sense to say something like, “I really feel strongly about this. Would you be willing to allow me to try it my way and we can see how it goes?” (You want to do that sparingly though. You shouldn’t greet every decision with push back – save this for things that are truly important to you.)

3. Pay attention to your tone. Tone really matters when you’re disagreeing with your matters – it’s the difference between sounding adversarial and difficult and sounding collaborative. You want your tone to be one of collaborative problem-solving, not one of frustration, venting or hostility. And you’ll get the best results if you frame the conversation in a way that demonstrates that you understand that in the end your boss is the one who will need to make the final call.

4. Decide how much you care. Once you’ve spoken up about your viewpoint, your manager may or may not come around to your way of seeing things. If she doesn’t, then at that point you need to decide how important the issue is to you. If you disagree strongly enough, you can always exercise your independence by leaving – but in general, it usually makes sense to accept that sometimes you and your boss will simply see things differently (just as you probably don’t agree with any other person 100 percent of the time), and that’s mostly OK.

Now, one last note about all of this: All the advice above assumes that your boss is sane and reasonable. If that’s not the case, and if you know from experience that dissent is likely to be punished, then modify your actions accordingly.

I originally published this column at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Sarah

    Deciding how much you care is such good advice, but so hard to live up to every day. At my previous job I had to remind myself daily that what my boss decided to do was not going to reflect on my job performance. But even now that I no longer work for the company, when I hear she’s done something insane and managed not to get fired for it I’m frustrated all over again.

    1. Jessa

      Exactly, you have to assign everything a kind of mental “how much do I care about this,” and if it’s below a certain number on your scale leave it alone. If you have a 1-5 scale and the thing is like a 2, this is not the sword you want to die on. You can still ask but don’t make a huge thing of it if manager says no.

  2. Mike C.

    And remember kids, when performing an experiment ALWAYS HAVE A CONTROL!

    I think it was the head of Harrah’s that fired people for only three things: theft, sexual harassment and performing an experiment without a control.

  3. Jen

    This is hard. I had a boss previously who didn’t listen to anyone and liked to speak up on things all the time and he had no business speaking up on. He’d constantly be like “Oh that was started by Freida over in finance. She came up with the idea from an old job at Harvard and brought it here.” and the truth was it was Franny in IT and she didn’t previously work at Harvard, she read about the idea in the Harvard Business Review . . . all the time he’d do things like this in meetings. Drove me crazy.

  4. A.Y. Siu

    I’ve had a lot of disagreements with bosses at my various jobs, and these are the two things I’ve learned:

    1. Always make the proposal but make it clear you defer to their judgment. I’m strong in my opinions and clear in what I think is best for the school or company, but I always end it with essentially “I’ve said my piece, and it’s up to you, since you’re the boss” (not in those exact words).

    2. Pick your battles. In the end, if you’re an underling who keeps pushing back against everything your boss wants, your relationship will become an antagonistic one, and your boss will likely not consider any of your proposals, because she’ll logically assume you’re against most or all of what she’s for. Pick one issue that you think A) is something she will likely be convinceable on and B) could actually be feasible, given your work culture.

    1. Mystic

      100% agree with this. I usually present our options in a list, with pros and cons, and then tell her which option I think is best. Then ask, “What are your thoughts?”

      If things go badly after she picked X when I thought we should do Y, I try to GENTLY remind her of things like “Remember, we had to give up A when we went with X” or “This was an expected complication with option X, is this still the direction you want to go in?” Absolutely do not say “I told ya so” :-P

      I do the same thing even if we go with the option I wanted. It’s never about who’s right or wrong, it’s more about making the best choice with the information that we have, and adjusting when we get new information, if possible.

      1. businesslady

        I like that wording. I’ll often use something similar, &/or include a caveat after my own suggestion like “but maybe I’m not aware of some of the nuances to this situation & that’s making me see things differently”–in my job, at least, there are often things I don’t (& shouldn’t) know about, but which lead me to a very different conclusion about the right course of action. that’s something worth acknowledging, but it took me a while to do it without inadvertently (or even implicitly) asking for privileged information in the process.

  5. Anonymous

    I agree with the advice about tone and not having all the information. However, none of that is useful if your superior takes anything other than “oh, YES, what an awesome idea” as evidence of insubordination or obstruction. The tricky part in many organizations is figuring out if “give me your advice” is actually code for “provide unconditional support.” And it’s not always easy to suss out.

    At a former company, I saw supervisors ask for feedback and advice on a particular intiative from the subject matter expert in their employ and then define that (legitimate) feedback as a lack of complete and total buy-in. This was held as a grudge and used as a means for downgrading that person on evaluations and ultimately forcing people out of the organization.

    1. Gjest

      Yes, this. I learned after a while in my last job that my boss didn’t actually want my opinion, she just wanted validation of whatever she wanted to do. One time when she was working so hard to convince me about a certain decision, I tried to tell her (as nicely as possible) that I didn’t always have to agree, but as the employee, I would do what she wanted because she was the boss. She did NOT like that. She wanted me to always agree with her decision. Towards the end I finally learned to keep my mouth shut, even when she asked me my opinion.

      1. huh

        Ha. One time as I was just learning the steps of the agree with me dance, I recall the moment I got what they wanted to hear…but the conversation was too far gone. I stammered with “why , yes I see” after discussing why, based on FACTs, this could not work…. After that point, I just pretended to discuss and always ended up so impressed by whatever they said. I am always amazed anything is ever accomplished in any industry.

    2. Lindsay J

      I hate this so much. I know there are a few people at my job that I just can’t be honest with, because when I am they get super-defensive, or they go around and go “Lindsay didn’t like this. Do you like it?” until they get others to go, “Yes I think that’s great.”

      Don’t ask for my opinion if you’re going to react negatively when I share it with you.

  6. ChristineSW

    I’m a complete wuss when it comes to disagreement, and I think part of it is because of #3–watch your tone. No, I don’t scream and yell, but I do have a tendency to come across a bit snippy when I don’t like something. Which then sometimes leads me to go the opposite direction–sounding meek.

    As with everything else, it’s a matter of finding the right balance between coming across as aggressive/confrontational vs. sounding as if you’re not confident that your supervisors will at least consider your input.

    Another thing people tell me: Don’t apologize for having a different opinion.

    1. anon

      I’m so glad you said this. I have this exact same problem too! I know how important it is to keep a positive tone, but that can be hard when you’re secretly annoyed or feeling defensive. I avoid confrontation and communication too much out of fear of saying too much or appearing frustrated. It’s not healthy or helpful, and I’m working on it. I guess I’m one of those people who always wants to say exactly the right thing and get along with everyone, but sometimes that’s not possible to have a friction-free interaction. Baby steps.

    2. Not So NewReader

      I understand this stuff about avoiding confrontations a bit too well.

      One helpful thing I have found is to ask myself “What is it that I want, that I am not getting?” Or conversely, “What does this coworker/boss want that they are not getting?”
      It me helps to put those answers into words rather than just letting the answer exist as some unsettled, nagging emotion.

  7. Mints

    I think this comes sort of easily when you already have a good relationship. Then again, it’s only come up for me in more causal situations (not month long projects but daily schedules).
    Manager “Hey when you’re done with that could you do X with Z?”
    “Oh I was thinking I would A with B… But I can X instead”
    Then they usually say “Sure A is fine” or “Yeah do X please”
    Although maybe this is a good approach to gauge reactions for bigger issues as well

  8. huh

    IMHO the best way to get your idea across is to let them think it’s theirs.
    For example say: Didn’t you say…., I think that will work because….
    I had a boss in the past who never disagreed, they just never implemented any idea, ever. Heck, they didn’t even go to bat to get me the basics to do my job…that when on for over a decade.

    And I have had bosses who will listen, let the issue sit and then VOILA it’s their brand new idea! Ugh. Whatever. I kept jobs for years just because I was an idea machine. Others moved ahead and co-opted my ideas, but I knew, from touching fire, that it was no use saying: hey what about me. Frankly, when you are smart and have ideas some people feel threatened as hell and either move you out or use you. After leaving I learned my boss finally produced a product I created! Ha. It’s not fair, but IMHO very few managers can accept their employees have good ideas. It’s not in their best interest, in the ever flattening corp., to promote their underling. Where do they go? In their place? Maybe.

  9. Scrooge

    Agree to whatever hare brained idea they’ve come up, and then stick with what has been working because you are better at your job than they are.

    They rarely notice.

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