Butt Heads With the Boss Without Getting Fired
It takes courage to disagree with the boss. It also takes some smarts to do it without getting fired. I didn’t have those smarts some years ago and so I put my job at risk. Here’s what I learned and want to share.
I was working for one of the big financial-services companies. One day my boss, whom we’ll call Hank, handed me a two-page plan. I read it and felt it wouldn’t work. But the boss is smart, I told myself. He’s much more experienced than I am. Putting aside my frustration, I reread the plan, more carefully this time. Once again I came to the same conclusion. I walked into his office and said, “Your plan won’t work, Hank.” Wrong move!
“Of course it’ll work,” he said. “Just do it.” “I want to redesign it,” I replied. “No,” he said, clearly annoyed.
I left the office crestfallen. As I reflected on what had happened I realized that I had caused Hank to become defensive. In effect, I was telling him he didn’t know how to do his job. I had to take a different tack.
I asked Hank if we could have a meeting where I could ask him some questions to help me understand his plan better. Sure, he said, and we set the date and time. I came to the meeting with a pen and notepad and asked Hank what he wanted to achieve with his plan. He described his objectives.
I asked a series of questions to clarify my understanding. After making certain I had grasped Hank’s goals, I summed them up. Success so far: He understood that I understood.
I told Hank that I thought I could create a plan that achieved his objectives and asked him if I could return with it on Friday. He agreed. I exhaled. The story has a happy ending. We met that Friday, he accepted my plan, and I began implementing it that day.
It could easily have gone otherwise. Here are some do’s and don’ts for disagreeing with your boss:
- Say you disagree with the boss’s plan. Avoid use of the dreaded word “but,” which might make you appear as if you’re negating everything the boss has said. Instead, use the word “suggest.” It’s a magic word in this kind of dialogue because no boss bristles at a suggestion.
- Let your emotions come into play. Don’t present an alternate plan right away. Ask for a meeting to discuss the boss’s objectives.
- Start your meeting by asking what the boss wants to achieve and the reasons for these goals. Ask open-ended questions to probe further. Paraphrase what you’ve heard to make sure you got it. Thank the boss for the information and set a date for presenting your plan.
- Link your plan to the boss’s critical needs, including any personal ones, as well as you understand them. Step into the boss’s shoes. Appreciate what’s good about the boss’s road map; you want to get your plan accepted, not prove the boss wrong.
- Open the meeting by giving the boss the floor. You won’t get the attention you need until the boss invites you to speak. Present your plan enthusiastically. Make it clear that it’s intended to achieve what the boss wants. Start with the bottom line, not with how you’ll implement the plan. Fill in the details only if you’re asked for them. Keep it short; the boss is busy.
You can’t advance your career without having the boss on your side. You also need the trust and respect of all the people you interact with at work, up and down the line and across functions as well.
Your ability to communicate clearly and persuasively is one of the key factors that determine career success. This skill affects your ability to do your job and the way you’re judged as a professional. It’s a particularly important message for those who may believe that technical know-how and a strong desire to succeed are all that’s needed.
A high level of skill in presenting yourself will increase your effectiveness in a wide range of business situations. These include:
- reporting on what you’ve accomplished,
- participating in meetings,
- interacting with internal and external customers,
- gaining support for your ideas,
- asking your staff for extraordinary performance,
- securing the cooperation of a peer,
- participating in a team presentation and
speaking before a group as a representative of your company.
The lone, isolated contributor is a rarity in business today. To be successful, it’s essential to work with many people and communicate effectively with them. On occasion it will be necessary to disagree with someone. Be sure to do it in a way that produces a positive outcome.