When your career is just beginning — or even once you’ve got some experience under your belt — it can be daunting to speak up when you disagree with a manager. Your boss’ authority is unimpeachable, or so you might think, so even if their directions are unclear or you struggle to wade through their unreadable emails, voicing your concerns about a project or course of action can be a fraught proposition.
Of course, there’s a difference between asking for help or needing a small amount of explanation, and broaching a potential full-on disagreement with your boss. But if you feel you must express your concerns over a working matter, there are ways to go about it that won’t run the risk of being labelled insubordination or sparking an unnecessary rift between you and your manager.
How to disagree with your boss
To be clear, this isn’t about second-guessing your manager or arguing for the sake of arguing; you need to clear a high bar to merit formally discussing a disagreement with your boss. And before you do anything, one of the most important things you can do is understand how they prefer to communicate. Are they someone who favours in-person conversation? Then set up a time to talk with them privately. Do they prefer written communication? Detail the issue in an email.
“Once you can understand what makes your manager tick you can adjust your approach, results, and communication to match what your boss actually wants from you,” advised Jeffrey Kelly, founder and CEO of AssetLab, to Inside Higher Ed in 2017.
Regardless of their preferred method for communicating, you should always count on carving out a specific time to go over the matter. Giving fair warning will prepare your boss for the conversation, which might otherwise be off-putting.
Once you actually get into that conversation, consider prefacing any uncomfortable topics with a compliment or two. Dan Schawbel, managing partner of the HR consultancy Workplace Intelligence, tells Lifehacker that you should, “always start with a positive note by complimenting them or sharing a successful work story before [voicing any criticism].”
It’s also best to not try to lay blame for whatever issue you’re bringing up. A tendency to blame others is an undesirable quality in any employee, and won’t exactly endear you to any boss, even if the issue at hand truly isn’t one of your own making. Instead, take full responsibility for not understanding the problem or point of contention. Consider phrasing such as, “There’s something I’m not understanding that I’d like clarification on,” or “it’d really help me if I could have this explained to me again.”
Taking ownership of the help you need or your own role in the processes you’re taking issue with — irrespective of where the shortcomings might be originating — will help the conversation go more smoothly. One way to do this is to favour “I” statements. This is a tactic you’re more likely to hear referenced in couple’s counseling, but the same strategy applies: you want to shift the burden onto the person speaking (that’s you), rather than the person being spoken to. Saying “I need help with x,” or “I felt we might be able to think about it this way,” shows your boss that you aren’t necessarily opposed to their vision, only searching for clarification for your own needs.
Only in extreme cases in which you can’t find any common ground with your boss — or you’re being asked to do something that violates your own code of ethics — should you consider leaving your job over a disagreement. If you go about addressing your concerns in these non-confrontational ways, hopefully you can feel heard and the issue can be addressed long before it comes to that.