In my work I coach many young professionals who are in their first job. Often I hear comments like, “My boss is an idiot” or “She doesn’t know what she is doing.” While I would love to tape these conversations and replay them for these individuals in 15 years when they are managing fresh-from-college employees (who probably think their bosses are idiots), it made me think about how to handle and even disagree with a supervisor in order to help one’s career track.
The Wall Street Journal’s career site had a solid article last week about disagreeing with a boss (only a preview of the article is available). First, disagreeing is not arguing – arguing with a boss, especially in front of others, is a losing proposition. When one disagrees with his/her boss, some things to keep in mind:
- Ask “Why?”: In the movie “Office Space” the boss Bill Lumbergh (played by Gary Cole) asks his employee, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) about a memo requiring a new cover sheet for all TPS reports. Is your boss Bill Lumbergh-esque? If you do, my sympathies and start looking for a transfer. However, if your office procedures require you to produce cover sheets for TPS reports, instead of complaining, why not ask your supervisor, “Why?” You may be surprised that a) there is a valid reason why there needs to be a cover sheet or b) you are the first person to ask that question and there is no good reason for the cover sheet.
All businesses have outdated procedures that once made sense but no longer are needed. It is usually an oversight and instead of complaining, try asking, “I am just trying to understand the process better, why do we fill the cover sheet in triplicate? It seems like the new computer system tracks the TPS report for all departments?” You could be improving your company’s processes.
- Facts, not Feelings: When disagreeing with a supervisor it is best to base your argument in facts and not feelings. When you approach your boss and either challenge a procedure or idea, it is best to have solid proof or examples to back up your claim. If hard data is not possible, one can always look to benchmarking how competitors/other divisions handle a similar situation.
- Make the boss look good: Disagreeing with a boss can be good for your career – yes, that is not a typo. When you challenge a position your boss holds, it is a good idea to do so in a way that makes your boss look good. Presenting ideas that allow the boss to save face or that show him/her how the department’s productivity will improve (or cost savings) are usually met with open ears. Notice I mentioned the productivity of the department – be sure your ideas will improve the entire entity and not just your situation.
- Don’t Force the Issue: I realize your ideas are the best options (in your opinion), but when your boss does not jump for joy at hearing them, do not beat a dead horse. If the answer is no, do not keep hounding the boss about the same ideas. Take a step back and wait until some time has passed and you have more data to prove your idea may be the right one.
The best supervisors are ones who are confident enough to hear dissenting opinions and not become defensive. And while some 22 year-olds may think they have it all figured out, it is wise to build some rapport and history with your boss before you challenge his/her ideas.