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    A provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.

Positive Disagreement
March 27, 2011 - 8:51pm

At least one a year, an entry level administrator will ask me if it is OK to disagree with his/her boss and, if yes, how should s/he disagree. We all know that differences of opinion and the resulting discussions are valuable aspects of an enlightened decision making process. And I could just respond to the question (since I am a Broadway musicals fan) by saying (since singing is not my strong point): just do everything “the company way.” Instead, my answer is that it is certainly OK; if you keep in mind the time, the place, and the style.

The easiest to explain is “the place.” If you are with your boss at a meeting with others and a difference of opinion arises, it is not helpful to disagree with your boss in front of others. Whether you are right or you are wrong, airing a difference of opinion in front of others undercuts your supervisor and is not consistent with “positive disagreement.” If you can take a break in the meeting, if you can discuss after the meeting, if you can anticipate differences before a meeting, all of these provide appropriate alternatives. The only exceptions to these guidelines are life or death situations, and meetings where everyone knows, respects, and works well with everyone else at the meeting.

By focusing on “the time,” I am clearly not talking about whether early in the morning is better than immediately after lunch or just before going home. I am also not suggesting that disagreeing on Monday is fine but that we follow the rule of never on Sunday. The time needs to be as early in the decision making process as possible. Insights are most helpful early in the process; positions are most flexible early in the process. By sharing your thoughts early in the process you also have the maximum opportunity to make a difference in the process as well as the maximum opportunity to make a positive impression. What happens if your supervisor doesn’t agree with your position? It happens, and you need to understand that it can happen almost regardless of the level that you are at. You need to get used to it, and it really can be OK for the situation and for you. If your opinion doesn’t carry the day, but your argument or the points involved are well made, you enhance your chances of moving forward. However, if you disagree with almost everything your boss says or does, it’s time to look for a new boss and a new opportunity.

And of course, by focusing on style, I am not suggesting that dark business attire is prerequisite to a stylish difference of opinion. What is prerequisite is a sense of respect and the need to be a good listener as well as a good communicator. In making your point of view known, please understand that there are likely other equally valid points of view. Please also take for granted that your supervisor is a knowledgeable person. Never be insulting, derogatory, sarcastic; never question your supervisor’s intelligence. Just focus on the issue at hand and make you point.

Is this always easy? Clearly not. Can there be times in your career when the opinion you have of your supervisor for valid or not so valid reasons make it impossible to follow the rules of time, place, and style? What should you do? You needn’t spend a long time searching for an answer; search instead for a new position.

 

 

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