Illustration of giant-sized boss and much smaller employee in a boxing ring
Illustration by Hunter French

'How Can I Respectfully Disagree With My Boss?'

The most important thing to know is that the conversation doesn’t have to be—and shouldn’t be—adversarial.
August 12, 2020, 2:10pm
Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.

When you disagree with your boss, it can be tricky to know whether you should speak up and how to speak up—and a lot of people early in their careers get this wrong. They assume they shouldn’t speak up at all (even when they have info their boss doesn’t have and might appreciate hearing!) or, on the other end of the spectrum, they disagree so often and so aggressively that they lose credibility and get a reputation for being annoying.

A good boss does want to know when you disagree with something, especially if you feel strongly and especially if you have information or context she might not have considered. But how you go about it matters. (That’s true of any disagreement at work, but it’s especially true when you’re dealing with your boss.)

When To Speak Up

So, how do you know when something is worth expressing disagreement over? Times you should speak up include:

  • when you feel strongly about something
  • when you think you have info that would change your boss’s mind if she knew it (for example, if a client mentioned to you that she hates the sort of strategy your boss is now considering)
  • when something would have consequences you’re not sure your boss is aware of (like adding significant time to a project or conflicting with another key priority)
  • when you have expertise in the topic being discussed
  • when you’re concerned something could be unsafe, unethical, or illegal

It will often make less sense to openly disagree if the stakes aren’t that high, you lack the expertise others in the conversation have, or you have bigger battles to fight (for example, if you’re arguing against running a particular social media campaign, this probably isn’t the time to nitpick your boss’s use of commas when she tweets). 

There’s also an emotional intelligence component that you want to get right—meaning you should consider context, mood, and what else is going on at that particular moment. If your boss is on a tight deadline or clearly having a terrible day, it probably isn’t the time to ask for a sit-down to air your grievances about the vending machine.

How To Speak Up

The most important thing to know about disagreeing with your boss is that the conversation doesn’t have to be—and shouldn’t be—adversarial. Your tone and overall approach should both be collaborative, similar to how you’d go about it if you were jointly trying to solve a less emotionally charged work-related problem. 

If you sound angry or defensive or terrified, the conversation is likely to go weirdly. Instead, your tone should be the same tone you’d use to say, “The vendor sounded worried about meeting the deadline we wanted” or “I’m having some trouble with the printer”—in other words, matter-of-fact, unemotional, and focused on solving a problem.

If you’re struggling to achieve that tone, it might help to remember that work disagreements often come about not because two people are adversaries, but because they each have different pieces of information. For example, your boss might know something you don’t about a client’s preferences or the need for a deadline, or vice versa. So you want to approach the conversation with that in mind. It’s not necessarily about anyone being wrong; it’s about figuring out if there’s missing context that might account for the difference in perspectives, and which might change one of your minds once it’s brought to the surface. And even if that turns out not to be the case, approaching it that way will help you get your tone right.

In fact, one of the best things you can do in your relationship with your boss is to think of yourself less an employee and more as a consultant—someone who’s not especially emotionally invested and is giving advice that your “client” (your boss) can then take or leave. 

These sorts of phrases will help you disagree respectfully and while still sounding collaborative:

  • “If we went in that direction, I’d worry about X.”
  • “The way I was looking at it is X.”
  • “My take was a little different. I thought X.”
  • “Have we factored in X?”
  • “We’d originally agreed to X, and that was important to me because of Y. Is there a way we can make that work?”
  • “My experience with X has been a bit different! Could I share some of the concerns I’d have if we went in this direction?”

Note that all of these are polite (you’re not pounding your fists on the table and declaring, “You’re wrong!”) but still straightforward. Most of all, they’re just calmly matter-of-fact.

Note, too, that with these phrases, you’re not not simply asking “why are we doing it this way?” or how was this decision made?” because those sound as if your boss needs to justify a situation to you -- and that’s not how the reporting flow works. Instead, you’re approaching it around the potential for mismatched information or context.

What If Your Boss Still Disagrees?

Once you’ve shared your thoughts, your manager may be convinced to see things your way—or she may not. If she’s not, then at that point you need to decide how important the issue is to you.

If the issue is very serious (for example, concerns about discrimination or safety), you might need to go over her head. But with most other workplace disagreements, it’ll generally make sense to accept that you and your boss will just see things differently sometimes, and her position gives her the standing to make the final call.

In some contexts, you can also try asking for a limited-time experiment. If your boss isn’t convinced you’re right and you feel strongly, sometimes it can make sense to say, “I really feel strongly about this. Would you be willing to allow me to try it this way for a few weeks and we can see how it goes?” It can be a lot easier for a manager to say yes to a short-term change than to commit to it forever. (You can’t do this every time, of course; save it for things that are really important to you.)

And of course, all of this advice assumes you have a boss who’s open to input and dissenting viewpoints. If you don’t, you’ll need to pick your battles much more carefully. But most managers are open to hearing opinions other than their own—and the decent ones know listening to other voices can help them make better decisions.

Get more good advice from Alison Green at Ask a Manager or in her book. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using this form.