The Right Way to Disagree with Direct Reports

Harvard Business Review

July 28, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

You often write about the importance of encouraging ideas from co-workers. What if you are a manager and your direct reports have strong opinions on a topic – and you believe their suggestions just won’t work?

Here are my suggestions for you, which (I hope) work:

* My teacher and mentor Paul Hersey always taught me that “leadership is not a popularity contest.” You, as a leader, have to be focused on achieving the mission. Sometimes this means disagreeing with your direct reports and taking a stand on tough issues.

* On the other hand, my friend and colleague, Jim Kouzes, points out that “leadership is not an unpopularity contest.” Great leaders focus on building positive, lasting relationships with the people they lead – and should be sensitive to how they are perceived by direct reports.

* 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 that 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.

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

* Listen and think before responding. Sometimes if you just back away and reflect, you will see things from a different and clearer perspective.

* If you can execute components of their ideas, do it. Your direct reports do not expect you to do everything that they suggest.

* If you finally just disagree, respectfully let them know that you have listened to their ideas, thought carefully about them and chosen not to execute their ideas at this time. Explain your logic. Let them know that you are not saying that they are wrong and point out 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 that these ideas are helpful.