12 leaders’ tips for respectfully disagreeing with your boss

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While everyone has both good ideas and bad ideas, when a bad idea is coming from the boss, it can have wide-ranging consequences. Leaders know they’re not perfect, and most of them welcome input from everyone on the team — especially when those on the front lines spot a potential misstep.

Employees may hesitate to disagree with the boss out of fear of offending them or simply having their concerns dismissed out of hand. However, the leaders of Business Journals Leadership Trust are clear that it’s not only acceptable but smart to share alternative viewpoints with higher-ups — as long as you do so productively and respectfully. Read on for 12 leaders’ tips on approaching your boss when you disagree with one of their ideas.

1. Come prepared with data.

Emotions can run high when disagreements occur, so bring numbers, stats and trendlines to the discussion to strengthen your case. Data also turn the disagreement from one of “you versus me” to one of “us versus the numbers.” – Sam Davidson, Batch

2. Illustrate the impact of the ‘bad idea.’

Bring data to illustrate the impact of the “bad idea” on the business. Show them data illustrating what is most likely to happen. Then provide a better solution — and show data on the impact of that “better” solution. The variance between the two should provide the impact needed to make the leader think twice. – Dena Jalbert, Align

3. Schedule a private conversation.

Ask for a private conversation with the boss to discuss the idea. Don’t blurt out, “That’s a bad idea!” to any team member. In the meeting, restate the idea and ask if you understood it correctly. Then, explain the problems you see with the idea and be sure to offer alternative solutions that may work for everyone. – Joy Frestedt, Frestedt Incorporated

4. Share your thought processes.

Assuming you have worked with this leader for a while and gained their respect, the best course of action is to politely disagree. Share your thought processes and any accompanying data as to why you have a different point of view. This dialogue usually provides a better path forward and develops ongoing mutual respect. – Yanet Herrero, Kings Service Solutions, LLC

5. Ask for permission to provide another perspective.

Ask for permission to provide an alternative perspective or a “devil’s advocate” stance. Asking permission is powerful because it authorizes you to speak something boldly that, without permission, you may not have shared. Conversely, as leaders, it is our responsibility to never suppress honest feedback but rather to seek it out and reward it when we receive it, for the good of our organizations. – Jonathan Keyser, Keyser

6. Follow a three-step approach.

I’ve developed a three-step approach to convincing a boss that an idea that isn’t theirs is worthwhile. The first step is to back your idea with industry research — especially for data-minded bosses. The second step is to appeal to their ego with competitive insights that provide essential context. The final step is to beg for forgiveness. This step happens when you test an idea without approval and apologize afterward. – Kent Lewis, Anvil Media, Inc.

7. Use a “Yes, and …” framework.

When you use the “Yes, and …” framework, you acknowledge your boss’s idea (“Yes”) and then offer a countering viewpoint (“and …”). Do not “Yes, but …” them. The counter-opinion you offer must align with what is important to your boss — if your boss cares about the bottom line, then your counterpoint needs to show a more positive impact in that area. Saying, “Yes, and …” makes your boss feel both heard and valued. – Mary Abbajay, Careerstone Group LLC

8. Make it clear that you understand their vision.

When disagreeing with higher-ups it is necessary to show you have acknowledged their idea but would like to add a differing perspective. A tip to respectfully disagree is to make it known that you understand your boss’s vision, but you’d also like to offer an alternative way to reach the desired outcome. This will open a dialogue and create a discussion instead of an argument. – Kimberly Davids, The Weitz Company, LLC

9. Compliment their ideas publicly.

Compliment ideas publicly — it is hard to disagree with someone who’s agreeing with you. Suggest new ideas in nonconfrontational ways. Take a “That’s a great idea — have you also considered the following?” approach. Voice your concerns not from an “I am right and you are wrong” perspective; rather, take a positive “Let’s make this idea even better” approach. – Jared Knisley, Fizen Technology

10. Show empathy and understanding.

Show empathy and understanding about why your boss made the decision they did before laying out your perspective. Bosses are human and can make mistakes. In such a situation, convey your disagreement with respect, and provide valid reasons for it. Also, prepare an alternative plan and explain how it can help to overcome the original idea’s shortcomings. – Alina Clark, CocoDoc

11. Attach your name to the outcome of your suggestion.

Whenever my team disagrees on an action, I ask for one person to take responsibility for the outcome. Stand up in a meeting and say, “I believe we should do this, and I will attach my name to the outcome.” This type of ownership by a team member lets me as a boss see their level of conviction, and it gives them insight into what goes through my mind when I make a decision. – Matt Bean, Lowden Street Capital

12. Be ‘for’ something, not just ‘against’ something.

First and foremost, the company must have a demonstrated culture of embracing candid discussions and healthy debate, exemplified by a boss who listens to their team. When you need to speak out, it is always better to be “for” something else rather than simply “against” the original idea. In other words, offer thoughtful alternatives rather than just criticizing a proposal. – Shilen Patel, HealthAxis Group

Article originally published July 27th, 2021, in The Business Journals