Managing a disagreement at work is always difficult, but you need to apply even more finesse when it comes to navigating differences with your boss.
(Originally published in Fast Company. Photos: Sigmund/Unsplash; Mélody P/Unsplash)
You can’t always see eye to eye with everyone at work—including your boss.
Perhaps you feel like your manager provided unfair negative feedback, or that they are not giving you enough support, or that they are micromanaging you. Maybe it feels like your boss plays favorites, or worse, is out to get you.
But addressing a disagreement with your boss can be complicated. It is important to raise concerns, especially if an unhealthy dynamic is negatively impacting your energy, focus, or motivation. However, it also makes sense to worry about the potential blowback. Your boss holds your career in their hands. Simply put: The power dynamics are unequal.
Managing a disagreement at work is always difficult, but you need to apply even more finesse when it comes to navigating differences with your boss. Here’s how:
CALCULATE THE RISKS
Conflict triggers powerful emotions that can cloud your thinking. First, step back from the situation and assess whether you might be making a mountain out of a molehill. Global stress levels are still high and many workers are completely burnt out.
Ask yourself: Is it possible your boss was having a bad day, and this was an unintentional one-off, or is this a consistently problematic behavior? If the behavior is repetitive, circumstances likely won’t change until you say something.
Next, consider how important this issue is to you. Is this hill worth dying on? While many managers are good people who want to do right by their teams, some are insecure, narcissistic, and unstable. Before you navigate any disagreement, be sure to understand who you are dealing with.
Think about how your manager has previously responded to negative news or constructive feedback. Were they appreciative, or defensive? If you’re uncertain, do you have peers who can provide more insight? Or could you test the waters and provide your boss with neutral feedback to observe the response?
Getting a good understanding of your manager’s likely reaction is vital for determining whether and how to proceed.
CHOOSE A GOOD TIME TO TALK
Timing is everything. Did your boss recently receive disappointing news or suffer a setback? Is there a crisis looming on the horizon? If so, steer clear, or you may end up on the receiving end of their stress and negativity.
Be thoughtful about when you want to address your boss. Researchers have found that judges are more likely to issue favorable rulings at the beginning of the workday or after they have eaten. Similarly, you may want to schedule time with your manager in the morning or early afternoon when they’re not hungry or eager to conclude their workday.
When it’s time to talk, ensure that you too are rested, fed, and calm. How we feel physically and emotionally can greatly impact how well we are able to work with others.
GET IN THE RIGHT HEADSPACE
Before you discuss a disagreement with your boss, be sure to get in the right headspace. As wronged and upset as you might feel, an accusatory tone will only put your manager on the defensive.
Recognize that your perspective is not the only one and understand that focusing on why you’re “right” isn’t helpful. Instead, put yourself in your manager’s shoes. Imagine their thoughts and feelings and try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Plus, by considering your boss’s perspective, as well as your own culpability, you can gain a more balanced view and prepare yourself for a productive conversation.
ESTABLISH COMMON GROUND
Your initial statements can make or break a difficult conversation. Set your discussion up for success by grounding it in a common goal.
For example, if the issue relates to a particular project, you might say, “I know we both want this project to be successful.” Or, if the problem relates to how your boss interacts with you, you might say, “It’s important to me that I make a strong contribution to this team and that we have an honest relationship. Can I talk to you about something weighing on my mind?”
Establishing a common goal and striking a collaborative tone increases the odds of having a productive discussion.
STICK TO THE FACTS AND BE CURIOUS
In sharing your perspective, let your boss know what’s upsetting you and why by grounding your assertions in objective information. As much as possible, avoid speculation and judgment.
For example, you might say, “During our 1:1’s and yesterday’s team meeting, I noticed you checked your phone multiple times while I was sharing my ideas. It makes me feel like my ideas aren’t valued.”
Indicate you hope to work together to resolve the misunderstanding or situation and ask open-ended questions to understand their perspective fully. Actively listen and acknowledge their point of view.
Throughout the conversation, mind your words and tone carefully. Avoid triggering phrases like “you always” or “you never” and comments that ascribe blame. Such language may put your boss on the defensive and escalate the conflict. Start your statements with “I” or “we” to show you’re on the same team.
KNOW WHEN TO DE-ESCALATE
Regardless of your preparation and finesse, your boss might not be receptive or respond well to your concerns. Be prepared should the conversation start to go sideways.
If your boss gets defensive—or becomes offensive—try to remain calm and keep both your tone and body language neutral. Listen without interrupting and allow for silence.
Don’t try to force a conclusion. When emotions are running high, pausing the conversation is your best move. You might say, “I’m sorry I upset you. I was hoping that this conversation would help us work better together. Can we talk about this at a later time?”
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina