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How to Effectively Disagree at Work

How to Effectively Disagree at Work

It is not enough to have a seat at the table. If you want to get ahead, you have to bring a unique perspective and help positively influence the decisions your colleagues make. Unless you work on a team where the right decision is made the first time every time, you will be in a position where you will have to do something most people find intensely uncomfortable: disagree.

Disagreeing helps prevent groupthink, where teams go with the flow instead of rigorously weighing all potential courses of action. But the ability to disagree at work rarely comes naturally. Disagreeing means sticking your neck out there; it puts you at risk of being blamed if the team follows your advice and it turns out to be wrong. Worse, you could be perceived as the one who says “no” all the time—a person who, like the boy who cried wolf, should be ignored.

Luckily, there is a way to avoid being perceived as a naysayer or greasy wheel, and all it takes is knowing the difference between a “fly-by no” and a “co-pilot no.”

A fly-by no is given by a naysayer, who flies into a conversation just long enough to say others are wrong before leaving again. He or she assumes the team will change its course of action by the next fly-by. A co-pilot no, by contrast, is given by someone who is invested in finding the best solution in partnership with the rest of the team.

To illustrate the difference, here are three scenarios you might experience at work that could lead to a disagreement.

Scenario One

Your team is deciding between multiple options and is leaning toward one.

The fly-by no: “That option is not the best.” 

The co-pilot no: “I like that option because it exposes us to a market with high brand awareness. When we had to make a similar decision last year, we found that brand awareness is important, but that the market with the largest total size leads to the highest return on investment. These other two options have larger markets, so I think we should explore them more.”

The co-pilot no utilizes data to back up the points, making the disagreement evidence-based, not reactionary. It also provides a path forward, showing others that despite disagreeing, you still view yourself as a part of the team. 

Scenario Two

Your team seems to be nearing consensus. You have expressed your dissenting opinion, but others are not buying your argument.

Fly-by no: “Option A is clearly better. I do not know why you insist on pushing for Option B.”

Co-pilot no: “Stepping back from the options for a moment, what three metrics are most important for us to prioritize? What options help us maximize them?”

The co-pilot no focuses on the problem, not people. Saying “I” shows your dissent is your own; addressing “us” or “we” reduces the likelihood anyone on the team will feel personally attacked. Posing questions will also help others reach the same conclusion as you. As Nelson Mandela said, “It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”

Scenario Three 

The deadline is fast approaching and there are a number of issues to resolve, one of which is most important.

Fly-by no: “I know we have a big issue to resolve, but I think there’s a better resolution for this smaller issue.”

Co-pilot no: Nothing

Disagreeing is not always worth it. In order to avoid earning a reputation as a naysayer, only disagree if it is working toward a larger goal. Not every point needs to be argued. Most of the time, done is better than perfect.

About Jon Fish

Jon Fish is a lover of fun facts, coffee, and businesses that solve financial and societal problems. He simultaneously serves as a project manager at Northeastern University New Ventures.

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