how to disagree with your boss

When you disagree with your boss, it can be tricky to know whether you should speak up and how to speak up — and a lot of people get this wrong. They assume they shouldn’t speak up at all (even when they have info their boss doesn’t have and might appreciate hearing!) or, on the other end of the spectrum, they disagree so often and so aggressively that they lose credibility and get a reputation for being annoying.

A good boss does want to know when you disagree with something, especially if you feel strongly and especially if you have information or context she might not have considered. But how you go about it matters. At Vice today, I wrote about when and how to do it effectively. You can read it here.

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. Reba*

    I enjoy the wacky illustrations on the Vice columns almost as much as the vintage photos they use on the Cut.

    1. Heidi*

      Agreed. Question, though: are the people waving money in the background supposed to be coworkers?

  2. HailRobonia*

    This is all good advice, I just wish my boss would listen. Any time we disagree with her she pushes back strongly, no matter how respectfully and clearly we state the issues. And she is newer to the team than the rest of us. And she is super patronizing – for example when we voiced our discontent with our office renovations (smaller cubes, no privacy, our backs to the main office, etc. and we offered several workable solutions) she told a weird random story about her young children getting used to a new school. So she was literally treating us like first graders.

    1. Lynn*

      ugh that is so gross I’m sorry

      Your boss reminds me of people at my office who are working on some org changes and whenever they get negative feedback they just say “oh, everyone just hates change!” as if the feedback is because of change in general and not because the changes in question are, in fact, stupid. Some people are just incapable of taking feedback and have a weird complex about receiving it.

      1. Jessica will remember in November*

        It’s SO true.
        Leadership: To give the office a fall theme, we’re planning to fill your cubes with dead leaves and the break room with rabid bats.
        Workers: Let’s not.
        Leadership: LOL bless your heart, you’re all so change-averse! [endless stream of corporate platitudes, possibly quoting trendy business books involving animal parables]

        1. Aquawoman*

          We hear your concerns but we went to a conference and trust me, rabid bats are the in thing in office design now.

        2. Jennifer Juniper*

          I would say something like, “I’m so excited and engaged about these changes! Thank you for improving corporate morale.” Then I’d ask my insurance company if they cover rabies vaccines. (At my last job, we were required to take “engagement surveys” and had to write about how much we admired the CEO as part of the onboarding process.)

          1. Diahann Carroll*

            At my last job, we were required to take “engagement surveys” and had to write about how much we admired the CEO as part of the onboarding process.

            OMG, lol.

    2. HailRobonia*

      There are so many times I’ve bit my tongue and not said “I told you so” when my boss disregarded my advice and it caused problems.

    3. Jill of All Trades*

      I’ve used the advice from AAM a dozen or more times in disagreements with the people who were my bosses (yes, plural) at my last employer.

      I was always told by the two of them specifically, “Either you can fix it or just deal with it.” Full stop, do not pass go, do not collect $200. If I asked for priorities when I had 6 projects and could only reasonably handle 3, they always said, “Just get it all done.” Then if I was late on 2 of them because I got 4 done, it was my fault I didn’t get 2 of them done on time.

      There are people who will listen, and people who won’t. We can only do so much.

    4. Trout 'Waver*

      This has been my experience as well, unfortunately. I have had only one boss that would listen to me in any sensible fashion. I’ve had to develop workarounds for the rest.

      It’s quite demoralizing to raise an issue, not be listened to, and then condescended to. I don’t want to be told why I’m wrong to be concerned, or lectured on high-school level principles. I want you to listen to the issue I’m raising and understand why I’m raising it.

    5. The New Wanderer*

      I had a manager refuse to listen to me when I disagreed with a suggestion he made to my project in {my area of expertise}. He told me I was only disagreeing didn’t know enough about {his area of expertise}, which is true and completely irrelevant because he was talking about {my area of expertise} which he admittedly and demonstrably knew nothing about. This rapidly became a pattern with him and a “pick your battles” situation for me that ultimately became “smile, nod, and do whatever I needed to do” until I switched managers.

      Me: my project on teapot spout improvements is going well
      Manager: I think it would be better if you added a grooming phase to the spout development
      Me: I’m not sure that would add any value as spouts have nothing to groom
      Manager: You don’t really know much about grooming, I suggest you read up on it, here’s a book I recommend and I know a grooming expert you can add to your team to train you all on grooming
      Me: … but there’s no grooming even possible …

      1. SweetestCin*

        Same.

        I didn’t agree with his insistence upon “having a plan for this contingency”. That was sound.

        But my plan for said contingency was “we need the designer to answer before we can bid, and if they don’t answer, we need to exclude because codes and rules apply”.
        His response was that that wasn’t a plan, and we needed to request a subcontractor to handle it. Except that they couldn’t, because “codes and rules apply” and what he wanted to do was against both.

        Then puffed up and asked exactly why I was being difficult. (Um, because you’re asking me to do something very shady.)

    6. Anon4This*

      We are getting ready for a similar office space renovation, and I know it’s going to make a lot of people deeply unhappy (and I am 99% certain that the CEO will not be taking feedback on the design, so, unfortunately, I can listen and empathize but probably not seriously entertain suggestions). Patting people on the head and pretending like they don’t have valid concerns is pretty off-putting – giving up space and privacy are legitimate concerns that affect people’s quality of life at work. I’m lobbying for a more liberal teleworking policy to provide some sort of relief, but it’s going to suuuuucccck.

      1. Jennifer Juniper*

        I’m guessing they’ll be told to be grateful to be employed at all during the pandemic and told to have faith in the process and trust the managers unquestioningly.

  3. Jellyfish*

    This an issue I regularly see with a coworker. This person has some genuinely good ideas, but their approach is almost always hostile and poorly timed. My boss gets frustrated with the attack or derailment that precedes Coworker’s suggestion, and then Coworker feels like no one listens to them or considers their idea.
    If they’d work on their presentation, I think they’d get their way far more often.

    1. HailRobonia*

      Sounds like it’s a good case for using Alison’s advice of couching an idea as an experiment, “let’s explore this option and see how it goes” etc.

  4. Reality Check*

    I’ve had a lot of “Pooh pooh” bosses. Just dismiss the concerns with a wave of the hand and/or tell us we’re imagining things.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      I was just in that meeting last week. Colleague raised a potentially significant issue based on some inputs they’d received pointing to a problem, in a standing meeting dedicated to raising these kinds of issues for discussion. However, when they were only halfway through the presentation, Grandboss said, paraphrased, “I don’t believe that’s a problem and you haven’t proven it to me, so it’s not an issue.” It totally quashed the atmosphere and although the presenter continued and other people eventually spoke up, there was this general sense of don’t cross Grandboss by suggesting that it needs to be considered. Colleague was also rather pointedly NOT thanked for presenting at the end of the meeting by either Grandboss or colleague’s manager, which is contrary to our company culture.

      My own impression is that Grandboss doesn’t want to deal with the issue because it could mean serious changes (adding cost and time), not that there isn’t a real problem. And that’s how good teams come to put out crap products.

      1. TardyTardis*

        And this is how good teams lose their most valuable members, because those are the ones with the most other options.

  5. Julia*

    I really like Alison’s refrain that interacting with your boss goes better if you approach it like the two of you are collaborating on solving a problem.

    Interestingly, I had an opportunity to interview some federal judges recently, and they said the same thing about lawyers who argue in their courtroom: the ones who build the most credibility are the ones who talk to the judge like they’re advising her on the best way to solve a problem (the legal issue). If you get strident and start arguing too enthusiastically, you’ll lose credibility pretty quickly. I thought that was a nice parallel.

  6. Jostling*

    I find myself having a lot of, “well, actually…” conversations with my boss(es). When we disagree, the disagreement frequently stems from them not having all of the details surrounding the conflict, or having incorrect information. I tend to get sucked into correcting the factual errors, assuming that the information will bring their opinions into alignment with mine. Unfortunately, I’m learning that this doesn’t always work, especially because we get mired in debating details instead of the issue at hand. Definitely an element of communication that I’m still working on!

    1. TardyTardis*

      Sometimes they don’t want to hear the details because they don’t want you to be right.

  7. Amber Rose*

    After leaving retail it took me a really long time to realize that my boss and I are both adults who should just interact more or less normally like adults do.

    Although I think working retail is a valuable experience that everyone should have, it definitely gave me a mindset of being like, a servant of some sort.

  8. The Green Lawintern*

    This feels particularly relevant, as I just spent three hours yesterday disagreeing with pretty much every single addition made by a higher-up on a new piece of documentation we’re putting out.

  9. Data Nerd*

    I’m interested in this one from the perspective of the boss. My new direct report (former peer, I just got promoted) is difficult–thinks she has to bring a flamethrower to every argument and use it. When we were peers, sometimes I was able to get her to see it from a different POV–not even necessarily management’s POV, just literally any other viewpoint–and sometimes I wasn’t. We have a new department head and are all back in the office for the first time since March, and this would have been a great opportunity for her to have a fresh start, but she’s used to our previous very bad management, where she had to advocate for herself and often needed the flamethrower approach to even get the old boss to pretend he was listening. I’m pretty sure she’s already established herself with the new boss as a problem.
    I think if I can get her to use me as the go-between, I can mitigate some of the damage she’s already done, and possibly get some of her ideas through because they’re usually good ideas! If anyone has any idea how I can make that happen, please share.

    1. Acronyms Are Life (AAL)*

      Have you told her how she comes across?
      “Hey, I recall when Joe was our boss and he never listened so we had to go in guns blazing, but Alice is not the same as Joe, and it comes across as hostile. Is there a way that you can step it back a little until we get a good read on how Alice listens to and uses our input?” Or show examples of how Alice has been listening?

      You can run interference but I feel that your coworker needs to be given a chance to self-correct. They can even address this with “Alice” and explain why they came across the way they did.

      1. Data Nerd*

        I’ve said to her actually almost exactly what you’ve said here, in response to a specific situation–and it did work in that she listened and agreed that she was overreacting, and she should wait to see what would come of the suggestions New Boss made (I hate putting it like this, like I’m saying she’s hysterical and shouldn’t be taken seriously, but she really, really was overreacting in this instance). I can try saying that in a more general way, maybe? Thanks for the advice!

    2. Mizzle*

      Do you really want to be the go-between, or would you like her to try a less adversarial approach?

      If the latter, I think you could get pretty far by telling her honestly that you really value her suggestions and that it’s important to you that people take those seriously. For that reason you want to make her aware that new boss responds really well to [some version of the non-adversarial approach] and you suggest she try it.

      (For me, the first part (if authentic) would be a giant spoonful of the proverbial honey and the suggestion would probably go down pretty well.)

      I’m nobody’s boss, but this is how my most effective bosses have dealt with me. :)

  10. Alexis Rose*

    I used to have a boss who was a “brainstorm out loud” type. She would hold forth at length on her ideas, people would hear her say something, take it as a directive, and then rail at her behind her back. When people disagreed with her to her face, though, she often took it really well. I wish more people had realized they *could* disagree with her productively.

    1. TardyTardis*

      Well, people might have been used to a different boss, who held daily executions of people who disagreed with her. There might be a training time required.

  11. Seal*

    My boss is insisting that he and I present a united front to our staff, especially during the pandemic. The problem is that he’s not taking the pandemic seriously and is dismissive of our staff member’s very legitimate concerns. Worse, he either reverses safety-related decisions that were made months ago or refuses to make decisions about safety-related issues, even when they directly affect people’s ability to work. Since I find myself disagreeing him on a daily basis, I have tried all of the tactics Alison suggests to no avail. He either doesn’t listen or mansplains things that have nothing to do with the problem, so nothing ever gets resolved. He’s even told me never to question him in public ever, about anything, but then refuses to answer my questions in private. I’m job hunting, but I’m also terrified for my staff.

  12. LadyByTheLake*

    As an attorney, I am ethically obligated to raise it if I think that my boss (or a colleague) is making a mistake. It helps that it is a requirement in my profession, but I agree that timing and tone are everything. Approach it as sharing or requesting information, as needed:
    “Does that analysis still hold if you take XYZ into account?” (usually they didn’t know about XYZ)
    “I was interested in that response, I thought that the answer was ABC because reason.” (Gives them a chance to explain their position and listen to mine.
    Make sure that the tone is “help me understand” not “you’re wrong” and it usually works fine to at least have a non-confrontational discussion.
    Now that I am senior, I’ve been saved from error more than once by someone junior speaking up to provide me with information I didn’t have. Thank goodness they spoke up!

  13. mgguy*

    I was fortunate at the job I just left to have an EXCELLENT overall boss whose one major shortcoming(no one is perfect) was that he would sometimes ask/tell me to do things that there were very good reasons to not. He was an administrative guy, and not one who understood my highly technical job other than in just very general terms and honestly was missing ~10 years of educational and experience backing to really understand it(he did learn his way around and some basic flow-chart troubleshooting, but nothing beyond the why of doing it).

    In any case, I can remember one particular day where he walked in and told me that I needed to completely relocate most of the equipment in one scientific instrument lab to another floor(4 gas chromatographs out of a lab that had 7, if anyone is interested). I felt comfortable enough with him to say “I really don’t think that’s a good idea”. He walked down with me, I pointed out all the things done in the current location(8 separate 20A power drops, compressed gas plumbing, and some other special things done just for that) to support that stuff, not to mention logistical reasons why it made less sense for it to be there than where he wanted it. He asked me for a cost estimate, which was close to $1K for me to do the gas plumbing myself. The real hold-up, though, was that it would normally be a few thousand dollars to run the power drops, but from correspondence with our physical plant, we were “maxed out” and would need a new drop to the building at about $40K to even be able to do that.

    Thank goodness he listened to my reasoning and didn’t just say “do it anyway” only to have-as would have happened-things fall apart miserably after it was done.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      At least he listened when the costs came up!
      I’ve had a boss who fell into the “just do what I say” camp where they a) get angry the second you bring up the costs associated to implement their directive, or b) have you start the whole project and then balk when the costs begin to hit and get mad about why you didn’t tell them it would cost so much to do what they wanted.

      Like literally some of these people never seem to realize there is a cost (time or money) associated with any action in business.

      1. mgguy*

        Trust me, I was super glad too, as it would have come back on me when we had the issues I knew would come up.

        Incidentally-related to my story but not the OP-I had a folder in my email and another inch thick folder in my desk with copies of every single estimate or quote I’d ever received. A lot of those came about because someone would toss a project at me and ask what it would cost, and I’d get quotes both on the equipment we’d be buying as well as estimates from our in-university electricians, plumbers, and other folks as required to make it all happen(we generally don’t source that stuff outside, but it’s still billed internally to our department)-basically try to be proactive about getting the “big picture” to anything. The power problem(not being able to run any more) was a well known problem by anyone, but it was basically a wall for a lot of stuff. I even kept all my own “shopping lists” for what I’d need to buy(and what it would cost) for a bunch of different project ideas that came across my desk or that I thought up myself.

        In any case, I was asked more than once by a co-worker why I kept so much of that kind of stuff when I had nothing to do with finance. Times like the incident above showed the value of having all of those records-about 10 minutes after the conclusion of our discussion, my boss had a fairly comprehensive total cost line-item estimate for that project sitting in his inbox along with my typed-up notes of why everything on there was needed. Even if some of the numbers I was working with were a year or two old, they still gave a ballpark figure. Even though it’s not necessarily a contest on this, that also won me a lot of “bonus points” for having been proactive enough to have acquired information on all the various puzzle pieces and then fitting them together that quickly.

  14. Mimmy*

    This article has some helpful verbiage. It’s about being assertive and professional, something I’ll admit I struggle with. My supervisor is actually very lovely but she’s also very convincing, so when I express a dissenting opinion, she’s good at convincing me why she’s right, and I just don’t have the guts to push back.

    1. Jay*

      If you find yourself going along because of her tone or sense of certainty, you might try reflecting back – “So what I hear is xyz” to give yourself some time to think and process the specific information to see if you really agree or you’re just being carried along. Of course, as Allison says, sometimes the boss is gonna do what the boss is gonna do, and it’s not worth pushing back.

  15. Ama*

    I had to learn how to be very tactful about pointing out a senior person was wrong when I worked in academic administration early in my career — and even though at least initially my boss was not the problem (my first boss in academia was always open to hearing other people’s viewpoints), I do think practicing on non-boss faculty and Deans prepared me to be able to approach more defensive bosses down the line in the more collaborative manner Alison outlines.

    My current boss, who I have a very good relationship with and who is 80% of the time open to disagreement, will occasionally get fixated on a particular solution to a problem (sometimes even after we’ve learned that there is absolutely no way we can go that route). My strategy at that point is to outline how I have exhausted every option for implementing that solution but, hey, in the process, I found this other idea that would get us pretty close to what you wanted, how about that? Most of the time that is successful.

  16. Jay*

    I had a version of this conversation with my boss yesterday. It was complicated by the fact that he didn’t know I have expertise in the relevant area; it’s not expertise shared by most people with my background. I ended up saying “This is really challenging, and mostly we learn to do it on the fly. I didn’t really learn about it in depth until I was 20 years into my career.”

    Know what’s really ironic? The subject at hand was feedback.

  17. Hot Dog Lady*

    Ugh! I have had an ongoing disagreement around the use of a certain word, and nothing and no amount of research seems to dissuade the boss that we should be specific and use the industry-standard term.

    Example:
    Sausages are the type of industry, while Hot Dogs are the specific thing we work with within the Sausage category.

    >Boss hates the word Hot Dogs, and wants to use the term Sausage or Sausages.
    >While not wrong (a Hot Dog is a type of Sausage), we ONLY work with Hot Dogs and not other types of Sausages such as Bratwursts, Andouille, Salami, and Kielbasa, Pepperoni type Sausages.
    >Industry terminology dictates that Hot Dog is an accepted industry standard term within the Sausage industry and the one that is most commonly used. Hot Dog manufacturing is a specialty with specific Hot Dog and matching Bun designers. Companies often use the term as part of their company name, i.e. Big Pink Hot Dogs or Hot Dog buns.
    >Hot Dogs are a large and popular category on its own, and are quite different from other Sausages in how they’re made and used by people.

    I presented all of this in a report to make the case of saying Hot Dogs, and yet Boss still said we will not use the word Hot Dogs because it implies you’re eating dogs. They just don’t like the word. So, I’m not allowed to use the term Hot Dogs anywhere, even though it feels very silly, misleading (because we do not work with the other types of Sausages) and it sounds very dumb in general when you talk to our customers who make… you know, Hot Dogs. So how are we supposed to attract and get more Hot Dog customers if we can’t use the word Hot Dogs?

    1. Ciela*

      okay, now I really want a hot dog, or other sausage related food item.
      This does seem like something that you might want to bring to the attention of someone higher up on the food chain. If your customers are confused because you are not supposed to say Hot Dogs when you are in fact discussing Hot Dogs, that seems like it could lead to lost business.

      1. Hot Dog Lady*

        Unfortunately, it is the higher up the food chain dictating this.
        I had to try and explain to an industry analyst why we didn’t use the term Hot Dogs the other week, and I was embarrassed. What can I say other than our executives don’t like the word? (I didn’t say that exactly, but the analyst, a Sausage industry expert, definitely questioned why he couldn’t use Hot Dog in our article). It makes our company look clueless.

        But seriously what else can I do? I’ve had people literally freak out every time they see Hot Dogs mentioned and was reprimanded over it, even though I used it appropriately.

        If no amount of my explaining, or industry knowledge works to correctly identify Hot Dogs, what then? Do I get the analyst to tell them this? Or let the company continue look clueless? I’m just afraid it will ultimately reflect poorly on my work, when I’m being forced to say something wrong. Either that or I’ll totally be gaslighted and blamed when someone prominent calls it out.

        1. Jay*

          You can’t be a prophet in your own country. This is the sort of thing consultants are paid big bucks to explain. They may also be ignored, but it’s more expensive!

          1. Hot Dog Lady*

            I was thinking about that. Let the analyst to tell them they’re wrong. They always want to kiss-ass with the industry analysts and investors and will pay thousands to hear the same thing from those mouthpieces. Heaven forbid an employee was trying to tell them the same thing for free.

            1. Workerbee*

              That sounds like the way to go, having the expensive person say what you’ve been saying.

              Could you also refer to the higher-up when customers get confused, either by outright telling them it was his decision, or by appending him to an email chain? Risky, I know, but I was thinking about the tendency of such higher ups to throw people under the bus when their terrible idea finally crashes around them…

              1. Hot Dog Lady*

                Oh, I know I’m likely to get thrown under the bus on this. But hopefully if it comes from an analyst via email it won’t travel too far.
                The whole thing just makes me mad though, because it is MY direct work that gets impacted, goes public, and will look like I don’t know what the hell I’m saying or writing. When it wasn’t me at all.

        2. But There is a Me in Team*

          I’m dying to know what the word is! I know you probably can’t say and maintain anonymity, but I’m trying to understand what could be such a problem. Hint? :-)

    2. Anon for this*

      My boss has a case of this. Everything is “The Paperwork” so I can’t figure out which form she actually means, or when we’re doing travel reimbursements, she uses “travel” to mean “mileage” and cannot be dissuaded. She’ll ask me “How much did we spend on travel in May,” I’ll tell her, and she’ll be like “But how much of that was travel?” Because somehow mileage is travel, but lodging and airfare and per diem are not. But our institution uses travel as the umbrella term.

  18. HostileDisagreer*

    I have a problem getting over-invested in disagreements with my GrandBoss. He used to be my boss (there was a global re-org this year), so we still work together directly on a lot of things. I find myself getting overly frustrated and somewhat hostile about things that are way too insignificant for that reaction, but only with him. The good thing is that he really likes me and I have a ton of built-up capital with him, so these conversations don’t really negatively affect our relationship. Honestly I think the problem may actually stem from the fact that we’re too close – sometimes it feels like I’m a teenager arguing with my dad! I’m trying to work on this as I know it’s not good, but I don’t seem to notice that I’ve overdone it again until after our call is over. I think stress is probably also a factor. Hopefully I can eventually curb this!

  19. Ancient Alien*

    I’m really trying to overcome my cynicism about this topic, but I’m a top performer with several “top places to work” under my belt and I have never worked anywhere that seemed even remotely interested in the viewpoints of the rank and file. I’m a pretty mild mannered, easy going person so I don’t think I’m coming across as abrasive when i do try to disagree (or raise potential issues). At this point, about the only time I’d raise an issue at any employer would be a situation where I might get in trouble later for not raising it.
    I really didn’t come here to whine, I am genuinely curious how others have overcome this cynicism and have learned to approach this in a better way. I know my attitude about it is not healthy or productive and I would like to change it. Any advice is appreciated because I feel very stuck in a “just do as I’m told” mentality.

    1. But There is a Me in Team*

      Can you bring up something relatively minor, but legit, and see how it’s received? That should help tell you whether your instinct are correct, or you are assuming that history will repeat itself. I get so nervous and convinced that I’ll be fired/branded troublemaker that I am much like you. It’s been helpful to practice giving feedback in a calm and confident way so that if something big does arise, I can address it without blushing and stammering.

  20. Jennifer Juniper*

    I’m guessing the people who disagree aggressively are also insubordinate – which is a fireable offense.

  21. feather*

    I frequently disagree with my current boss, and it’s really, really frustrating. I’m trying to learn to bite my tongue and pick my battles, but it’s hard when I know that project management and other teams find them frustrating, too. (People have said as much to me. Couched nicely, with caveats about how smart my boss is, but yeah. It’s a problem.) Tact is not my strong suit, so I’m sure he’s picked up on my feelings. Hopefully I haven’t completely shot myself in the foot. Guess I’ll find out around performance appraisal time…

  22. Zaphod Beeblebrox*

    I had a boss who would listen to all of our good, valid reasons why his idea wouldn’t work, and then say “you’re right, it probably won’t work, but we’ll give it a go anyway”.

    It usually didn’t work, for the reasons we had given.

    He never learned.

  23. Jennifer Juniper*

    I wonder if they do stuff like this to encourage their workers to obey without question.

  24. angstrom*

    Try to hear your argument from an outside perspective. Does it sound like you are arguing for a change that will be better for you, or better for the organization?

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