Not everyone loves the ideas that their manager or management team comes up with. Sure, you can swallow your opinion and agree with whatever they suggest. But, what if the idea is genuinely bad? By knowing how to communicate effectively, you can save your company from the cost and embarrassment of following through.
However, many people resist saying anything for fear that their managers will take it the wrong way. So, we want to show the ways you can react appropriately and control your responses to speak up effectively. Here are six tips on how to communicate your opinion in a way that management respects.
1. Understand the why
Before you tell your manager that you disagree with them, make sure you have the whole story. It’s possible they’ve made their decision based on information you’re not aware of. Great leaders will effectively communicate changes are coming, but sometimes you need to “manage up” and get answers yourself.
Imagine you found out your company was downsizing. You’d likely think it’s a horrible decision, especially if your job is likely to get cut. But what if you found out their only other option was to move the whole operation out of state? Given this new information, you might suddenly find yourself agreeing with managements’ choices.
So, before you plan how to tell your boss that they’re wrong, do your research to make sure that they are. Don’t be afraid to ask them why they made the decision they did. Some key questions you may want to ask are:
- What outcome are you hoping to achieve?
- What other options did you consider?
- How did you end up deciding to go with this plan?
Communicate effectively by approaching the conversation in a relaxed, open manner…or it may come off as an interrogation. Speaking of interrogation, try using the words “how” and “what” when asking questions because “why” can make people defensive. At this point, you’re not trying to change their mind or even show that you disagree, you’re simply seeking to understand more about why they made the plan they’ve announced.
2. Consider when, where, and how
After doing your research, if you’re still convinced your manager is wrong, it’s time to plan how you’re going to tell them.
You could say all the right things, but if you do it the wrong way, you’ll still fail to be heard. If your manager announces something you disagree with, you can’t just blurt out that you think they’re wrong. Especially if you’re in the middle of a company-wide meeting. At the same time, if you sit on your opinion for too long, it may become too late to change directions.
There’s no one right answer to what is the best time and place for a difficult conversation. But, here are some pointers to help ensure you nail the timing:
- Make sure you have your boss’ attention. In general, scheduling a face-to-face or video meeting is more effective than approaching the subject on the fly or through email. This way, you can reduce distractions and help you both focus on the conversation at hand.
- Consider your audience. How and when does your boss converse best? Is your manager generally more approachable in the morning and run ragged by the end of the day? Then make sure you book time early in the day for the best possible results.
- Prepare. While it’s important to promptly address the issue, you also need to be prepared for the conversation. Make sure you give yourself enough time to plan what you’ll say.
Pick a day, time, and method of communication (i.e., face-to-face vs. teleconference) that aligns with your manager’s schedule and preferences. Then let them know you’d love a few minutes of their time to discuss the information they’ve shared with you and set up the meeting.
3. Skip the sandwich
There’s a classic theory about sharing criticism that states it should be served in a sandwich. With this technique, you start by stating something positive, then share the negative, then end with another positive.
Instead of trying to cushion your criticism between flowery compliments, get to the point, and be concise. Your manager will appreciate you not wasting their time and is more likely to take your complaint seriously.
One important thing to note is that if the majority of your interactions with your manager are negative, your ability to communicate effectively will deteriorate over time, regardless of how you frame your criticism.
It’s much easier to openly and effectively disagree when you already have a strong history of positive communications. So, make an effort to tell management when you think they’re doing a great job, and which of their decisions you fully support. Just don’t do it in the same conversation. It has to be authentic and occur over time, not just come up when you’re trying to cushion something negative.
4. Focus on facts
If you can’t clearly and unemotionally explain to your boss why you disagree with them, you won’t be able to change their mind. Communicate effectively by supporting your point of view with facts or data that can be verified, rather than with opinions, fears, or assumptions.
Let’s say you don’t support their plan because you’re afraid it will fail. Saying so will not be enough to sway most bosses. You need to elaborate and show that your fear is based on something tangible.
Support your fears and worries with data. For example, use numbers showing how frequently similar projects have failed and build context around the data.
A lot of managers and executives put more weight behind numbers than words. Presenting data like this gets straight to the point. An overworked manager will appreciate the data because they can quickly see and understand it over paragraphs of text. Present facts in dashboards or graphs that are easy to interpret rather than handing over pages of reports.
5. Bring alternatives
A famous quote from motivational speaker Jim Rohn is, “focus on the solution, not the problem.” If you want to change management’s mind, you can’t just show them all the ways their plan won’t work. That’s focusing on the problem, and by doing this, you shoot down their idea but leave it to them to come up with a new plan.
Without bringing viable alternatives, your manager might feel locked into the current plan even after you’ve shown proof it won’t work, simply because they cannot think of a better alternative.
But focusing on the solution doesn’t mean you have to have the answer. In fact, it’s often better if you don’t. If you tell your boss they are wrong, but you have the right answer, it can come across as condescending or confrontational.
Rather, you should communicate that you don’t believe their plan will currently work (remember to include facts as to why, as we discussed above), but you have a few ideas that could be successful. This approach focuses on the solution and offers up ideas, but it still allows your boss to have the final say and feel in control of the situation.
What if you can’t come up with an alternative? If you have good reason to believe your boss’ plan won’t work, but you don’t know another way to achieve the desired goals, then you may need to think outside of the box.
Imagine your management team has a plan to grow sales that you’re convinced will spectacularly fail. Yet, you can’t think of another way to achieve the same level of growth that they’re insisting this plan will produce. Instead of coming up with alternative growth plans, you could suggest ideas for discovering better options.
For instance, you may suggest they do more market research to see what their target market really needs. This could help reinforce that their current plan will be successful, or it may (as you suspect) show that they’re headed in the wrong direction and generate better options for them to consider.
6. Prepare for failure
At the end of the day, management will have the final say over the company’s direction. Even after you bring your concerns to your manager, show them why you believe the plan is a bad one, illustrate the data, and suggest viable alternatives, they may still choose to follow through with the original plan.
It’s vital that you prepare for this before you begin the conversation. If you walk into the room confident you will change your manager’s mind and you fail, you may react poorly and hurt your working relationship.
Think about the worst-case scenario for how the conversation will go and how you will handle that outcome. Consider what you’re prepared to do if your boss won’t be swayed. Are you willing to go over their head and bring your concerns to their boss? Do you feel strongly enough that you’re prepared to quit if you cannot change their mind? Or will you be able to respect your manager’s decision and help them try to implement their plan if they will not budge?
Being mentally prepared for worst-case scenarios can help you be calmer and more confident throughout the discussion, which can also help support your case.
You need to be prepared if you want to communicate effectively with your manager. Take the time before you meet to understand why your boss chose the plan they did.
Consider the best way and time to approach them and know in advance what you’re going to say. Compile facts supporting your case and be ready with potential alternatives. Finally, be prepared for worst-case scenarios and know what you’re willing to do next if your manager chooses not to listen.