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Chapter 13: How to Disagree with Your Boss without Getting Fired


This tale dates back from when I first began working as an operations manager for Citibank. I was responsible for four of the operating units that supported the retail branch network. I was young, but I wasn't a kid.

The young part was in my operational experience. While I was "green" and had things to learn in the operations area, my previous work in marketing, sales, and sales management was valuable enough to qualify me for the new assignment. That's why they offered me the position.

My New Boss - Hank

My new boss was a man named Hank. I was somewhat awed by him as I took over my new job. He had started with the bank right out of school and had twenty-five years experience. My goodness, he had been with Citibank for almost as long as I had been alive! He seemed to know where to find the answer to every question, and he was thoroughly conversant with the various daily reports that tracked productivity, volume, mistakes, and so on. I was impressed . . . at first.

But it didn't last. After about one month on the job, Hank gave me an additional task: Create an incentive program that increased productivity. I was happy about this because it was an area in which I had a lot of experience - and I was eager to demonstrate my expertise.

But the happiness faded quickly. Hank gave me the task, then handed me a two-page outline that told me exactly what the program was and how to put it together. He then said, "I'd like to introduce the plan on Friday and begin on Monday. Let me know if there are any problems with that." It was instantly clear that this was an empty assignment. He was not looking for my input or ideas; He wanted me to implement, not think.

My Reaction

I was deflated. Worse than that, I felt his design for the incentive program was all wrong and wouldn't work. His plan rewarded results, and these people didn't know what they needed to do to get those results. I wanted to design an incentive program around the behaviors that would make them effective. Hank wanted to start at the finish line, and the runners didn't know which way to run to get there! So I decided to tell him what I thought and, unfortunately, I didn't spend a lot of time strategizing what to say. I walked into Hank's office and said, "Your plan won't work, Hank."

He looked at me with a rather cold stare and said, "Well, of course it will work. We've done it this way for as long as I can remember."

"But you're rewarding the results instead of the behaviors, and that is strategically wrong with this audience. They don't know how to improve results on their own. I want to redesign it so that it will work. The existing program - the old way - won't work."

Hank looked at me with a hardened stare, "Just do it the way I said to do it." He walked away from me without saying another word.

To Hank's back I said, "I want to redesign it."

Without turning around, Hank said, "No."

No One Was Happy

I'm sure if Hank had to grade how he felt about me at that moment, I wouldn't have made the honor roll. Not good. A couple more of those situations and I might have never gotten a chance to develop my "operational knowledge"!

No question, Hank was unhappy, but he was not alone. I was so frustrated! I knew I was right. I knew Hank was wrong. It was as simple as that. But I didn't know how to get him to understand how right I was and how wrong he was.

I wish I could tell you that my brilliance saved me at this point. But it took me a little more time to figure out how to disagree with Hank and not get fired.

Why Start a War?

Let's step back now and analyze the dialogue that just took place.

My first comment to Hank was, "Your plan won't work." In just one sentence I managed to tell Hank that his twenty-five years of experience in this company were worth as much to me as flea powder. Being a red-blooded American boss, Hank felt attacked. And when people are attacked, emotions come into play.

With my first sentence, I had begun the war. Hank and I were both developing retaliation strategies. And everything we did at this point was colored by our emotions. No one could win. One of us would get our way (undoubtedly Hank) and, as Einstein once said so eloquently, "The war is won, but the peace is not." There would no longer be a neutral environment between us, no peace. And if that were to happen, guess who the big loser would be?

My explanation to help him understand my viewpoint had a good intention. But intent and effect are two different things. The effect was that I insulted him again, this time with details on why it was stupid (or he was stupid) to do it his way.

Emotions Under the Influence

George Thompson, in his insightful book Verbal Judo, offers a provocative thought on how our emotions influence our thinking. He says, "We all deal with people under the influence nearly every day. If it's not alcohol or drugs, it's frustration, fear, impatience, lack of self-worth, defensiveness, and a host of other influences."

Hank and I were now interacting with each other while under the influence - the influence of our egos, our frustration with each other, and our emotions.

My last salvo, which took place as Hank had effectively dismissed me, was, "I want to redesign it." Why should Hank even consider that idea? I had just told him his plans were stupid, implying that perhaps he was too. There was no way he could look at my plan with an open mind, or look at me without a sense of growing irritation.

A Reenactment - What Might Have Been

Let's re-create the story and look at how I should have handled this:

I am sitting in my office, and Hank comes in to talk about the productivity incentive program. "Here is what I want you to do with our incentive program." Hank hands me a two-page outline of what the incentive program had looked like in the past.

As I look down at the paper that was handed to me, Hank's deep cigarette-braised voice barrels out, "I'd like to introduce the program Friday and begin on Monday. Let me know if there are any problems with that." Hank heads back to his office.

What Do I Do?

I try to think clearly enough to develop a plan. I start thinking about what he said and why he acted that way. I have to ignore my anger and quiet my thumping heart; I need to think from his perspective. If I understand what he likes most about his plan, I can figure out how to present my own recommendations in a way that might intrigue him, maybe even excite him. But to do that, I realize, I really need more information. I need to ask questions and get Hank to talk.

How to Get the Boss to Listen

When emotional, always begin with questions, not statements. Getting the boss to listen to you when you have a disagreement requires tact and a defined strategy. Here is a format to use when you need to have a productive two-way conversation:

The Disagreement Format

  1. Develop your understanding.

  2. Paraphrase your understanding.

  3. Tie your idea to the boss's needs.

  4. Ask an open-ended question.

  5. Thank your boss!

Here's how the strategy might have worked for me:

1. Ask key questions to develop your understanding.

I go into Hank's office with a pad of paper and pen. I ask Hank if it would be OK if I asked him a few questions to help me understand more fully his perspective on the incentive plan.

He smiles and says, "Sure."

His smile is effortless; mine, a bit forced, but it's there. I continue, "What are the results you are looking to achieve with this incentive plan?"

This question provides a valuable focus: The answer will tell me what my boss's real objectives are.

Hank obliges by saying, "Well, the incentives help motivate the staff at a key time - when our work volume is high. So we kill two birds with one stone. We increase productivity at a time when we need it most."

Then I ask:

"What do you like most about the current program?"

This question is also very important. Hank has been doing things his way for decades. I need to find out why he values the method and what his favorite parts of the program are.

Hank has to think for a minute on this one. "It helps manage the budget. I know this time of year is going to be a period when we are more heavily staffed. The incentive program doesn't cost us nearly as much as it seems to when you factor in the increase in productivity. We actually hire less staff than we would have to otherwise."

My follow-up question for Hank is:

"What do you like least about the program?"

Hank laughs. (My stomach is still in knots, but he laughed! I must be doing something right.) "Well, that's an easy question. It's the timeliness of tracking results, because we don't get the results until two weeks later. That makes it a little less effective as a motivator. People have to wait to see if they've ‘won.'"

The answer to this question is extremely valuable if the goal is to change my boss's mind. Here he has just handed me the one part of his time-tested, favorite program that even he feels could use some improvement. This is the "in" - the wedge to open his mind to a new idea.

2. Paraphase your understanding of what the boss has told you.

During your information-gathering efforts, it will help a great deal if you paraphrase your understanding of what your boss is trying to accomplish. Ask a closed question - one that requires a "yes" or "no" response - to verify that understanding. This demonstrates your listening ability and your respect for your boss's opinions. So, if I can show that I respect his opinions, Hank is more likely to respect mine:

"So Hank, if I understood you correctly, you are looking for the incentive program to increase productivity and manage your employment expenses. Additionally you are looking to get program results on a timelier basis, so they could be an even more effective motivator. Is that correct?"

Hank looks pleased. "That is exactly what I want."

3. Tie your idea to what you've learned about the boss's needs and concerns.

We've talked about the "tie back" that links the words of a presentation to your key point when you are speaking to an audience. In this case, when the audience is your boss, the better strategy is to "tie back" your key point to something he or she wants to hear - a reiteration of the desired program result, chief value, or main concern. By doing this, you allow your boss to see the value of your idea through his or her own lens.

Here, I take a deep breath. "Well, I think I know what you are looking for, Hank. I'm confident that I can come up with a way to do this - develop a plan that builds on our existing program with even greater productivity and more timely results. I will need a few days to do that. If it is OK with you, I'd like to do some work on this immediately and come to you Friday with a plan to meet your objectives."

4. Ask an open question to get the boss's reaction.

This is how you avoid the deadly word "no" and keep your boss feeling very much in charge of the decision, while you are still managing the interaction. So I say, "What do you think, Hank?" I smile confidently and hold my breath waiting for his reply.

Hank looks at me and doesn't say anything for a few moments. "I guess that would be OK. But no later than Friday. I want to get started because our peak volume period is sneaking up on us very quickly!"

Now I can smile, and the smile is real. "No problem, Hank. Friday it is."

5. Thank your boss for listening and considering your input.

Always remember to thank your boss for agreeing to talk with you. (You want that behavior to continue!) Here's my new parting line:

"Thank you, Hank, for the additional clarification and for letting me work on an even better program. You won't be disappointed."

Let's summarize what has happened in this "Right Way" scenario, using the "disagree with your boss and not get fired" principles. I have demonstrated my respect for my boss and maintained my integrity. In fact, I have even enhanced it. If my program works (which I know it will), I begin to build a track record of success and a level of trust with Hank.

The right way to disagree is to replace any pattern of confrontation with a strategy that builds your credibility while improving your working relationship.

Everyone's Goal - To Increase Sales

Here is another example, but the circumstance is slightly different. The constant is that the subordinate and the boss disagree. I'll change the names to protect the innocent, but we'll still see how the principles apply.

The company is a large insurance organization. Adrian is the senior vice president of human resources, and John reports to him as the vice president of training. Adrian, the boss, does not have sales experience. His background is in human resources. John came up through sales, spent some time in sales management, and, through a twist of fate, ended up running the training organization.

The company is committed to increasing its share of market. To do so, it must find ways to increase sales. Human resources has to get involved because the company suffers from high employee turnover in sales. Management believes the sales force is not generating and closing sales opportunities as well as they should. John and Adrian need to have a discussion about how to use a training initiative to help the sales force become more productive.

John can handle the situation quite well: He is very sensitive to Adrian and where he is coming from. He disagrees with Adrian - nothing uncommon there. It's part of life. But the way he will reduce the friction in the dialogue is uncommon and artful.

The setting is this: John is waiting in the conference room when Adrian walks in with his "Coffee Grande" cup. This is probably his third this morning, since it's 8:30 and he usually gets in around 6 a.m. His shining silver hair, impeccable dress, and melodic voice make you think he might have had an opportunity on Broadway had he not gotten into the insurance business.

John is in the room already. He arrived a few minutes early (because he always does) to lay out the information he wants to go over with Adrian. Although John is sitting, it is immediately obvious that he'd make a better football player than a jockey. He is 6? 3? and also cuts an imposing figure across a conference table.

Adrian chimes, "Well, good to see you here ready and early, John. We have a lot to discuss and as usual, not enough time to do it justice."

John, a man of fewer words than Adrian says, "I'm ready."

John Asks Questions to Develop His Understanding

John continues, "I'm prepared to talk about my ideas on the topic with you, Adrian, and I'm sure you have some thoughts as well. If you would share your thoughts first, I think it will help us use our time together most productively."

Adrian, in a voice slightly too loud to be talking to one person, says, "Our people are just not good in front of the clients. They need some help with their selling skills."

John is shocked. He can't believe that Adrian didn't mention prospecting abilities. In his view, presentation skills are of little value if the company can't find new clients in the first place. But he does manage to choke out a useful phrase that will buy him some thinking time: "Say a little more about your thoughts on that, Adrian."

Adrian, happy to have the airtime, says, "Sure. I am not sure our salespeople know how to sell, what questions to ask, or what the needs of our customers are. I want them in front of the customers having the skills necessary to connect their offer of products to what the customer needs."

John Paraphrases His Understanding

Though John feels this comment is an insult to his sales staff, he will go ahead to paraphrase his understanding of what Adrian was really trying to say. So he asks a closed question to verify that understanding:

"So, if I understand you correctly, you want them in front of the customer as much as possible, and when they get in front of the customer, you want them to have the skills necessary to sell our products and services. Is that correct?"

Adrian responds back using his typical enthusiasm, "Yes, in front of the customer and skilled."

John Ties His Idea to the Boss's Needs

John takes a deep breath and begins, "I agree. I want them in front of the customer as much as possible and skillful in their process."

Then he gracefully attaches his idea to Adrian's, so that the two ideas mesh: "In order to do that, we also want to consider helping them understand what skills will help them get in the door more often."

It works. Adrian looks at John and says, "Yes that sounds like a very good idea. You know my job depends on the success of this initiative, and because of that, yours does as well."

"Yes, I understand," John responds. "That is why I would suggest that we look at this as a two-stage process. First, develop skills that will help our salespeople get in the door more often. And, second, once they get there . . . teach them skills that will connect their offer of products to what the customer needs. I believe that two-pronged approach will afford us the highest level of success."

John Asks an Open-Ended Question to Gauge Reaction

"How does that sound, Adrian?"

"OK," said Adrian. "Go ahead and start contacting vendors so we can begin to have an impact as soon as possible."

John Thanks His Boss for Listening

"Thank you, Adrian, for your advice and approval on this. I'll begin the vendor selection process immediately."

John was successful using the "disagree and don't get fired" principles. He was able to keep Adrian "open" to hearing his ideas by using the principles. Now I can't promise that you will always be as successful as John was in convincing your boss, but the thought of firing you will be the furthest thing from your boss's mind. And since you are helping your boss get pet projects accomplished in such a collaborative way, he might wind up looking at you and thinking: "Promotion!"

Key Learnings on How to Disagree with Your Boss and Not Get Fired



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