How to Disagree With Your Boss

I have a great boss. She's an advocate, she empowers me to do my job in the way that I think it should be done, she trusts that I'll follow through on my commitments, and she's interested in my professional growth. She also says "No" to me sometimes, which I hate hearing (of course), and can lead us to conflict. 

So what do you do when your boss says no? When you are SURE that your plan is going to work and they stand in your way? How do you move forward with someone who's first response is to stop you in your tracks? And what if your boss, (unlike mine), is just plain obstinate and unreasonable? 

Steven Covey Had it Right

Seek first to understand, and then to be understood, is Covey's principle, and I should tape it in size 100 font to my computer monitor, it's so important in the workplace. When I hear "no", my first instinct is the two year old inside of me that balloons with unreasonable rage and screams in my head, "WHAT?! You dare to say no to me?!" But step 1 is to silence this inner child, and listen. Even when you think what you're listening to is unreasonable, listen hard. Before you advocate more for your perspective, understand where your boss is coming from. Listen to all of what she says, turn it around in your mind, meditate on it. See it from her side. 

Get Some Distance 

Then, retreat. Take a time out, call the meeting, and step away from your supervisor for a time. This does two things, it calms the emotional flooding that we get when we're unhappy or provoked, and hopefully keeps you from saying things you might regret. It also gives you some perspective on the conversation and the situation. Perspective is critical. This not only gives you space, but gives it to your boss as well, with the possibility that time will increase their perspective and scope of thought as well. 

Ask Questions 

If you didn't get enough information to fully understand your boss' position in their initial "No", then go back with more questions. Lines like "I was thinking about our conversation, and I had a few questions come up that I wanted to clarify with you", can help you get better understanding of what the "No" is about and why, and whether it's rational or emotional. It can also show that you are engaged, interested, and a good listener, which is important to demonstrate if you want the same courtesy in return. You can get even more information by trying phrases like "what do you think it would take for you to be able to say yes to a request like this in the future?", or "How do you think we should proceed from here?". Even something like, "I'm surprised at your response, I thought that my request was well-supported, and I'm wondering how best to move forward from here," might give you some good information.

Think Like Game of Thrones 

The interaction between you and your boss is not the only relationship your boss is managing. While you are asking for what you want, and your boss is negotiating that with you, she is also negotiating with other people for their interests, and with her own boss for the needs of her department or own professional career. There are often many political relationships at play, behind-the-scenes conversations about other organizational issues or relationships that you are not in on, and that may be affecting her "no" to you. Look for clues to the greater organizational puzzle that you fit into, and what other political maneuvering may be happening. These clues can give you information on how to further negotiate, or how to increase your odds of a successful conversation next time. 

Express Empathy 

I know, this one is tough, especially if you've just been told "No" in a really cruel or rude or uncompromising way. But see what happens if you try this. Statements like "I understand that this might be a complicated issue, and a lot to think about." or "I can imagine that this might place a bit of pressure on you or on our team, and I'm aware that I'm not making this easy for you right now." Even, "this is a big request, and I know it's a lot to think about," might help your boss relax a little bit. Oftentimes, a quick "No" comes from exhaustion, impatience, and a caving to the pressures of being a leader. Leading is hard work, often lonely, and requires a lot of energy to maintain. Show some empathy for that, and it's possible that your boss just might relax a little. 

Remain Professional and Do Good Work 

Sometimes your boss is truly an irrational and uncompromising person, and no amount of negotiation strategy will work in your favor. When this is the case, it is critical that you take the rational high road, purge your emotions outside of the conversation, and then be prepared to work forward the best way that you can. Seek allies who can help you with their political capital. If you need your boss' support or approval for a project or idea, work the political side of the organization by performing tasks that make your boss look good, that bring positive attention to her, her department, and you, and build up good will as you move forward. You'll build a stronger position to try again in a later conversation.

There is good in the "No"

Hearing "No" actually comes with an upside. It can help you direct into new ideas or different pathways, and can encourage you to build other relationships in the organization. It can show you organizational priorities that might have been hidden from you before. It might be protecting you from something that truly would have been a failure, that your boss sees and you can't. It might be your final straw and the push you need to change jobs or change companies. Look for how you can use the No to push you forward on your professional trajectory. Use it, and that will take away its sting.