Home » career advice » How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You | HBR

How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You | HBR

Negotiation skills | Workplace |Success  | Career advice

by Amy Gallo | March 17, 2016

Originally appeared in Harvard Business Review

cat and lobster

Your boss proposes a new initiative you think won’t work. Your senior colleague outlines a project timeline you think is unrealistic. What do you say when you disagree with someone who has more power than you do? How do you decide whether it’s worth speaking up? And if you do, what exactly should you say?

What the Experts Say
It’s a natural human reaction to shy away from disagreeing with a superior. “Our bodies specialize in survival, so we have a natural bias to avoid situations that might harm us,” says Joseph Grenny, the coauthor of Crucial Conversations and the cofounder of VitalSmarts, a corporate training company. “The heart of the anxiety is that there will be negative implications,” adds Holly Weeks, the author of Failure to Communicate. We immediately think, “He’s not going to like me,” “She’s going to think I’m a pain,” or maybe even “I’ll get fired.” Although “it’s just plain easier to agree,” Weeks says that’s not always the right thing to do. Here’s how to disagree with someone more powerful than you.

Be realistic about the risks
Most people tend to overplay the risks involved in speaking up. “Our natural bias is to start by imagining all the things that will go horribly wrong,” Grenny says. Yes, your counterpart might be surprised and a little upset at first. But chances are you’re not going to get fired or make a lifelong enemy. He suggests you first consider “the risks of not speaking up” — perhaps the project will be derailed or you’ll lose the team’s trust — then realistically weigh those against the potential consequences of taking action.

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