How to Disagree with a Superior: Recommendations

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How to Disagree with a Superior: Recommendations
Anneke Zwart, Student (University), Netherlands

Disagreeing with someone who is more powerful than you are can put you in a difficult situation, in which you have to carefully think about WHAT to say and more importantly the WAY you express your disagreements. Gallo (2016) puts forward 9 recommendations with regard to disagreeing with a superior.
  1. BE REALISTIC ABOUT THE RISKS: People tend to think in worst-case scenarios, and overestimate the risks involved in openly disagreeing with your superiors. It is also important to think carefully or even first sum up the risks of NOT 'speaking up'. After that, you can more realistically weigh the possible positive and negative outcomes.
  2. TIMING: Once the risk assessment concluded that speaking up is the better option, then it is important to carefully think about the timing of speaking up. You might need more time to rethink the issue. You may desire more insights into the views of other colleagues, and develop your army in case of lots of opposing views. The setting is also important in timing: try to discuss the issue privately rather than publicly.
  3. SHARED GOALS: If you are able to connect your thoughts on the issue to a shared goal, your chances of being heard and able to convince the other party are higher. By contextualizing your statements, people will see in what way your thoughts contribute to the shared goals.
  4. ASK PERMISSION: Announce that you are disagreeing and ask your superior for permission to set out your arguments. It will provide your superior with some psychological safety and control.
  5. BE CALM: Although the idea of openly disagreeing with your superior may make you nervous, that will only undercut the message. Try to find ways to remain calm: Deep breaths, slowing pace etc. can help.
  6. VALIDATION: Start by articulating the views of the others first. This will create a strong basis for the discussion.
  7. DON'T JUDGE: Carefully choose the words you want to use to share your thoughts. It is particularly important to focus on the facts, stay neutral and avoid ‘judgement words’.
  8. POLITENESS: Slightly understating your confidence in your thoughts will leave some space for dialogue. Show others that you are aware of the fact that your view is just another opinion and openly invite them to present other views.
  9. ACKNOWLEDGE THE POWER OF YOUR SUPERIOR: The final decision will be made by your superior and it is important to acknowledge that. However, one should not backtrack on your views.
Source: Gallo, A. “How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You” HBR March 2016.


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