Imagine this: company leadership rolls out a new client management policy that’s opposite to your approach. Worse, you’re afraid this new approach could hurt your existing client relationships. Do you speak up and voice your concerns? Stay silent and keep doing things your way, hoping no one notices? Begrudgingly change your approach to comply with the new policy?
Navigating a tricky situation like this isn’t easy. Disagreeing with someone above you at work, whether they’re your direct supervisor or company leadership, can feel intimidating. It’s natural to worry that voicing concerns could get you labeled as “difficult” or hurt future performance reviews. Of course, the opposite is also true: speaking up, and doing so in a thoughtful, collaborative manner, can earn you a reputation as someone who isn’t afraid to be candid and do what’s right.
I’ve dealt with my fair share of disagreements over the years and found that how you approach the conversation is key to setting the tone for constructive resolution. Here’s what to keep in mind the next time you find yourself facing a tricky disagreement.
What’s the context? Dealing with conflict at work has never been easy but the last 18 months have intensified tension and stress levels. It’s much easier for communication confusion to happen with remote work. Before speaking to the person, take a moment to consider the context: is this a case of genuine miscommunication? Is the person missing some key information that could help shift their perspective?One of the most common causes for disagreement is when two people remember something differently. At some point, we’ll all have a verbal discussion with a colleague who will later recall different details or think we’ve agreed to something else entirely. For this reason, it’s a good best practice to document verbal agreements in writing. A brief email summarizing a conversation can be a helpful reference point in the future and ensure everyone is on the same page from the beginning.
What’s the root cause of the disagreement? Sometimes, a disagreement is rooted in something larger: a conflict with a management style, a lack of confidence in a leader’s judgment, or a personality clash. In these cases, the current disagreement is just a flashpoint for the bigger conflict, and it’s likely to trigger strong feelings. Understanding the root cause informs the options for resolution.If there’s a bigger issue at hand, like conflicting management styles, you may need to learn to live with this or explore opportunities elsewhere. I’ve worked with candidates who decided to find new positions, and they’re much happier after making the switch.
What are the facts? When emotions are running high, calmly speaking can be difficult and you or the other person may feel attacked. Plainly stating the facts – X happened, then Y – helps both parties align to the issue. Be specific and reference examples. Whenever possible, try to avoid bringing others into the dispute by pressuring colleagues to take sides, no matter how “right” you may feel. This only intensifies the conflict and makes it more challenging to reach a constructive resolution.For example, at a previous company, a colleague and I disagreed over the best way to approach a client problem. The colleague decided to move forward with her method. When her method didn’t work out, she tried to shift the blame back to me, even telling our coworkers I was at fault.In this case, an email trail clearly showed my colleague’s initial agreement to handle the problem her way and her attempts to avoid blame. I could point to these concrete facts during our conversation. It felt good to stand up for myself, and it felt even better to do so in a way that skipped unnecessary “he said/she said” drama and kept the focus on exactly what had gone wrong so we could move forward together.
Am I staying quiet because I’m afraid to voice my opinion?
Have you ever seen an offensive advertisement and wondered, “How in the world did this get approved?” Simple: no one wanted to disagree with their superior, so they all said yes, even when their hearts and minds said otherwise.With minor conflicts, it can be tempting to sweep the problem under the rug and move forward. But if you find yourself habitually staying silent to avoid conflict, it’s important to consider why. Are you worried about facing repercussions for speaking up? If you remain silent, things are unlikely to get better on their own. Worse, by staying silent you’re going against your moral compass and fundamental values. Your voice can be a powerful advocate for change and improvement, so don’t be afraid to use it!
Disagreements can be a healthy part of workplace dialogue. When approached constructively, a disagreement is an opportunity for all parties to discuss the facts of the situation, find common ground, and move forward united as a stronger team.
Have you faced a tricky situation with a workplace disagreement? I invite you to share your experience in the comments below.