Disagreeing with Your Reports


January 12, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

I often write about the importance of encouraging ideas from co-workers, but what if you are a manager with direct reports who already have strong opinions on a topic—and you wholeheartedly believe their suggestions just won’t work? Here are my ideas on the subject:

First, my teacher and mentor Paul Hersey always taught me that “leadership is not a popularity contest.” You, as a leader, have to focus on achieving the mission, which can sometimes mean disagreeing with your direct reports and taking a stand on tough issues. On the other hand, as my friend and colleague Jim Kouzes points out, “leadership is not an unpopularity contest.” Great leaders focus on building positive, lasting relationships with the people they lead, and they should be sensitive to how direct reports perceive them.

Begin with a philosophy of doing what is right while at the same time involving and empowering great people. Ask yourself a simple question: “Is winning this battle worth it?” If you believe this is an important issue for the company, stand your ground. If it is important to your direct reports and insignificant to the company, let it go.

What If You’re Wrong?

Another tip that will help you in many situations: Try not to prove that your direct reports are wrong. Chances are your direct reports are generally bright and interested in what they are doing—especially the ones who take the initiative to make suggestions. The fact that your ideas differ from their ideas does not always mean they are wrong. As difficult as it may be to believe, sometimes you are wrong.

Make it a point to listen and think before responding. Sometimes if you just back away and reflect, you will see things from a different and clearer perspective. And if you can execute components of their ideas, do so. Your direct reports do not expect you to do everything they suggest.

And, finally, if you just plain disagree, respectfully let them know that you have listened to their suggestions, thought carefully about them, and chosen not to execute their ideas at this time. Explain your logic. Let them know that well-meaning, intelligent people can disagree.

Don’t win them all. Be open to going with their ideas when you can. When they disagree with you—and they prevail—support their ideas, just as you want them to support your ideas when you get your way.

I hope these ideas are helpful.