When someone at work says something that you think is wrong, you face a choice: speak up or bite your tongue and risk the feeling festering into resentment. Although many of us shy away from conflict in the workplace, disagreeing with your colleagues and managers can actually be healthy for teams. When it’s done right, it promotes a positive work culture where everyone knows they’re welcome at the table. But to get to that point, you need to understand how to professionally disagree.
Arguing your case at work begins with not seeing an argument as a battleground with you versus your colleague or boss. A good outcome doesn’t mean winning the argument, it means finding a solution that benefits the team. It means staying polite and respectful, even when you don’t feel that way. Here’s how to speak up to your co-workers and managers with that mindset.
What employees should be thinking
Once you’ve decided you need to share your difference of opinion, you may get nervous, especially if you’re going to be disagreeing with someone more powerful than you. But here’s a helpful pep talk: remember that you were hired for your unique perspective. As one human resources manager put it: “You don’t want to hire a bunch of clones.”
But you do need to tread cautiously. First, think carefully about how you’ll raise the difference of opinion. Harvard Business Review recommends reframing your idea to make it about what’s good for the company, not what’s good for you. In the article’s case study, a director of operations openly disagreed with his boss about delegating work to staff. Because this employee kept his cool and emphasized that his boss’ decision had the potential to hurt the firm, his boss listened to him. The lesson? Don’t make a work confrontation personal.
It’s also important to remember that it’s not always about what you say, but how you say it. So much comes down to tone. As you lay out your argument, start out by restating the opposing opinion. It shows that you know what you’re talking about and that you’re not complaining frivolously. Keep your voice as neutral as possible. Take deep breaths and speak more slowly if you feel the argument start to affect your temper. HBR also advises avoiding pejorative words such as “short-sighted,” “foolish,” or “hasty.” If you don’t think you can speak without colorful descriptions of judgment, try avoiding adjectives all together. You want to come off as level-headed as possible, so you won’t needlessly antagonize your colleague.
The ultimate goal when professionally disagreeing is to get the other side to listen to you, and that won’t happen if you lose your cool and start yelling.
What your manager is probably thinking
If you want to reach a resolution, it’s helpful to understand what the other side is thinking.
When your boss tells you ‘no,’ most of the times their rejection of your idea or proposal has nothing to do with you the person, but how your proposal will affect the organization.
Writing in a Fast Company article, consultant Jim Morris recommends his employees ask, “Are you open to a different opinion on this?” before launching ahead with their disagreement. This question lets your manager choose the time and place for an argument and increases the odds of success.
In addition, be aware of the optics of the situation before you publicly disagree with your manager. Morris discourages employees from bringing up disagreements in front of clients — not to protect his ego, but to protect the company’s identity: “I don’t want the customer to lose faith in our organization.”
And as always, it’s better to bring up disagreements in the early stages. No manager likes to be surprised and I told-you-so’s are only useful in middle school cliques. If the disagreement is directly affecting your job on a daily basis, bring it up immediately.
That’s how you win in the office: by recognizing that everyone is working for the same company. Your methodologies may be different, but you’re working toward the same goal. Disagreements do not need to result in a win-lose; at their best, they can lead to a win-win for all involved.