Some Thoughts on Disagreements with Leaders

It crossed my mind that there is often a challenge, especially in the workplace, for how a team member can safely or at least respectfully express a difference of opinion with their leader.

Obviously it is ok to have a difference of opinion – any leader who says differently is not a leader but a dictator. However, the team dynamic, the need for internal structure and basic respect, and the need for particular situations to keep momentum, can mean that differences of opinion need to be expressed in particular ways appropriate to that situation.

Fundamentally, a leader is doing their job if they encourage and stimulate diverse thinking because that is fertile ground for creativity and the development of new leaders, confident in their own ability to assess and process information. But that carries with it the challenge of managing employees and team members who differ from each other and differ from the leadership.

Hopefully, your manager is a gracious, secure and empowering leader, then you can ignore this post… If not, there might be something here of some benefit.

A lot has to do with personal styles, both in how a person expresses their opinion, and how that is handled by others. This note is less about the leader, and more about the team member; about how they could choose to express thoughts and differences of opinion in a way that was constructive, and not counter-productive. At the very very least, humility and respect are vital to a fruitful discussion. In addition, the proactive approach is to arrive armed with potential solutions, not problems. Map potential ways through an issue and be prepared to be accountable for the solution. It may well end up back in your court!

Strategy issues – a strategy discussion (at the worst a open challenge to the strategy) depends on the employee’s credibility, and needs to happen in private. The stakes are high. In a public forum, if the employee is right, or even just persuasive, the leader’s credibility can be compromised. If the leader is right, the employee will possibly be embarrassed. Both would probably regret that situation and any inappropriate responses that happened, and so private discussions are recommended. In private, the employee should ensure fertile soil through good timing for the discussion – there is a better time… and a not-so-better time. Appreciating that there are aspects of the big picture that the employee is not necessarily privy to is also wise, so the employee is well advised to approach the topic with humility, “teachability” and a willingness to be wrong.

Ethical issues – nobody should be forced to compromise on ethical issues, and if a clear commitment by an organisation to an ethical code exists, there is a framework for a discussion at least. Again, this should be a private discussion, approached not with a view to winning any contest of wills, but with a view to deciding what action you as an employee might be forced to take if the ethical position does not change. Remember, accusations of a lack of ethics can result in a backlash. Are you willing to resign? Put in a grievance? If so, follow the processes carefully. Remember, though, the impact on future work opportunity, through work references… Sometimes the best option depending on the seriousness of the breach, is a quiet departure, or even a quiet agreement to disagree and permission from the leader/organisation to not participate. Not every battle has to be won through conflict.

Workload and Pressure – in an ideal world this is a regular, open discussion through a healthy performance management culture. Where this is not so, a solid track record of putting in the effort without complaint or malingering, goes a very long way to being heard. If you don’t have this at least, your words are likely to fall on deaf ears. Remember if this is being asked of everyone, you will need to be sure of why it is legitimately unreasonable for you, before you initiate discussions. By the way, it is wise not to be the unofficial spokesperson for other employees – if it all falls apart, you are likely to be the one who gets tagged as the troublemaker!

Being mistreated, or seeing others mistreated – this is a difficult one, and is best managed through established processes such as a grievance. Again, the stakes will be high. Do not be a crusader. Deal with your own issues, and encourage others to deal with theirs through proper channels. Where you feel it was an honest mistake, such as inconsiderateness under pressure, a discreet and respectful conversation with the leader can easily bring about a good result.

A brief checklist:

  • Know your facts
  • Be conciliatory and constructive at all times
  • Its best to be discreet and politically sensitive
  • Have a credible track record – it goes a loooong way.

Best of luck!


About Vaughan Granier

Just Thinking...
This entry was posted in Personal Growth, Work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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