Harsha thought things were going well in his new role. Six months earlier, he was hired by Najib, a wealthy and powerful man in Dubai, to turn around the flagging reputation and prospects of a five-star business hotel. It took little time for Harsha to identify three areas of focus that he was confident would rapidly improve ratings at popular review sites. First, he would update the hotel’s look; second, he would invest more in training staff; and third, he would curb the hotel’s reputation as a haven for sex workers by beefing up the security patrols and asking the women to leave.
Harsha’s plans were working. Within a few weeks, he was pleased to see reviews calling the hotel “The cleanest in Dubai.” As the hotel’s reputation improved, so did bookings.
But Harsha’s growing satisfaction at turning the hotel around was shattered one Saturday night by a call from his boss, Najib, who felt that Harsha was losing business for the hotel by “harassing” customers. Najib hardly let Harsha get a word in edgewise, and ended the call abruptly.
Harsha was flabbergasted. After he hung up with his boss, he considered packing his bags and leaving. He berated himself for failing to respond in his own defense, with evidence to back up the fact that the hotel was doing better than ever. Najib had already formed his own opinions and simply didn’t want to hear what Harsha had to say.
While CEOs despair that “Nobody tells me the truth,” their staff simultaneously fret that “I can’t speak my mind to the boss.” The result is that information doesn’t flow up the chain of command, resulting in uninformed decisions and avoidable crises.
Clearly there’s a lot that bosses should do to invite greater candor. But I’ve been surprised over the years to find that even in the most stultifying cultures, there are usually a handful of people who know how to speak truth to power. We’ve studied the tactics of this interesting group and found that there are ways to disagree effectively. Here are four of the things these people do well:
- Contract for candor upfront. Effective communicators don’t wait for the need to disagree — they hold a separate conversation when the stakes are low and emotions are calm to agree with the boss about how to manage those moments when they disagree. This psychological contract becomes a powerful reference point when emotions run high. After all, a boss is much less likely to take offense at disagreement if he or she has invited it in the first place.
- Discuss intent before content. When the boss gets defensive, it’s for one of two reasons. The first is because she believes your dissent is a threat to her goals. Defenses are far less often provoked by actual content than they are by perceived intent. You can be far more candid about your view if you frame it in the context of a mutual purpose that the boss already cares about. If you fail to do this, the boss may believe your disagreement signals a lack of commitment to her interests.
- Show respect before dissent. Most of us assume that if you want to be respectful, you have to dilute your disagreement, and if you want to be honest, you’re going to have to hurt some feelings. But this is a false dichotomy. You must find a way to assure your boss that you respect her and her position. When that sense of respect is secure, you can venture into expressing your views openly and honestly.
- Ask for — and earn — permission to disagree. Asking for permission is a powerful way of honoring the position of the boss and avoiding unnecessary provocation. The trick is to ask for permission while giving the boss a reason to give it to you!
This is exactly what Harsha did. When Harsha accepted the position at the hotel, he knew Najib wanted to be in control and was not used to dissent. And yet he also knew that his success would depend upon maintaining his independent management of the hotel. So in their initial interview, he contracted for the license to express concerns by saying, “I expect you and I will disagree at times. I need to know that when this happens, you will allow me to express my concerns. Without this assurance, I cannot bring my full talents to this job.” Najib agreed.
After Harsha’s difficult phone call with his boss, he spent some time trying to understand what had happened. Apparently, some of Najib’s friends had been embarrassed earlier in the evening when security guards at the hotel had refused entry to their female escorts. Harsha understood the cultural embarrassment this caused Najib. His friends had been treated inhospitably on his own property.
Harsha called Najib and requested a meeting during which Harsha first showed that he understood Najib’s position, but then explained that he had good reason for implementing the security policies that he had put in place. (Show respect before dissent). He said: “Thank you for allowing me this time to discuss our phone call the other night. I will understand when we are through if you prefer another manager. My entire goal has been to be a good steward of your property. I want the hotel to be profitable. And I want it to be hospitable to your friends. (Discuss intent before content.) However, our market research has shown that the security policies we put in place have elevated the hotel’s reputation and increased bookings. These were the goals we both agreed to when you hired me. I believe that I’ve done my job well, and that I deserve to have a chance to review my decisions and their consequences with you in a mutually respectful way. (Earn permission to disagree). Without that, I cannot continue to work at the hotel. If you do not want to extend those considerations to me, I understand and will resign so you can get a manager you feel good about.”
Najib nodded and said, “You are the manager I want. I will make every accommodation so you can lead with integrity and success.”
Harsha understood the signal Najib needed in order to feel respected, and was willing to offer it. Having done so, he protected his self-respect as well by authentically expressing his own needs and viewpoints.
Another common way skillful people ensure that dissent is not misinterpreted is by contrasting. A contrast is a simple “don’t mean/do mean” that prevents the boss from misinterpreting your intent. For example, one manager who wanted to express ethical reservations about a boss’s decision began, “I’d like to share a concern, but am worried that it will sound like I doubt your character. I don’t. And yet I don’t think I’d be fully loyal if I didn’t share my perspective. May I do so?”
When powerful people shut you down, it may not be because they’re incapable of brooking dissent. It may be that they mistake dissent for disrespect. By contracting up front for candor, clarifying your intent before diving into the content of your concerns, and giving your boss a reason to give you permission to disagree — you’ll find that you’re able to disagree far more effectively.