A senior vice president I know was working on a merger and had come up against a roadblock.
He pulled the merger implementation team into a room and said: “We’ve analyzed it over and over, but it really isn’t possible to complete this merger in the time frame Walter wants. Now, what do we do?”
Walter was the CEO. He had a reputation for not listening to anyone who disagreed with him. But, missing the merger deadline would be an embarrassing and very public failure. Walter had made a big deal of completing the merger in three months. Someone had to convince him that the merger wasn’t going to happen then, but no one wanted to volunteer. Everyone knew that Walter was a shoot-the-messenger kind of guy.
The team tried several things to get Walter to understand. First, they prepared a data-rich PowerPoint presentation. Walter just waved it away. Then, they hired a respected consultant, who confirmed the fact that it couldn’t be done in the time allotted. Walter just thought she was the team’s patsy. All the while, the clock was ticking, getting closer and closer to failure.
Finally, the SVP came up with something that worked. He knew one of Walter’s buddies who was within months of retirement. Walter wouldn’t fire him. Using all the data the team had prepared, the SVP convinced Walter’s buddy to get the message through to Walter, and disaster was averted.
This true story contains a lot of ideas for how to disagree successfully with a person who is senior to you. Fortunately, there aren’t that many senior managers as unapproachable as Walter out there. Still, disagreeing with someone senior isn’t something you want to do every day. Save it for important issues, even in organizations that say they encourage people to express their own opinions. If you disagree too often, you will get a reputation for negativity.
There are ways to disagree successfully with a senior person without having your head handed to you. Here are some ideas:
Don’t just blurt out your point of view; be strategic about it. Think it through. Why do you disagree? Could your disagreement be perceived as “political?” Or do you have the good of the organization at heart? You are more likely to be believed if you don’t have anything to gain from your point of view.
Make sure you’re right. Senior people usually have access to more information than the people below them. Is there something you might be missing?
Do what the SVP did, and bounce your point of view off of a few trusted peers. If you can’t convince them, you’re probably not going to convince the senior person. Ask for their feedback on how to be persuasive. But don’t ask your direct reports — they may not want to disagree with a senior person!
Prepare a presentation – no loaded words or hypotheticals; use data and charts instead. Keep it businesslike. PowerPoint can help keep your presentation brief and to the point.
Find a respected, credible expert to go over your conclusions. She doesn’t have to be an outside consultant, but she should be recognized for her expertise by your senior person.
The SVP’s buddy strategy is also a good approach. People trust people they are friends with, particularly if they are at the same level in an organization. Find someone you know who is the same rank as the more senior person you are trying to convince. Persuade him using the data you have put together. Then, ask him to share that information with his buddy.
It takes courage to disagree with someone senior to you. But it is a professional skill you need to learn. Sooner or later, like the senior vice president in the story, you will face a situation where you have to disagree. Besides, if you just agree all the time, senior people will think of you as a doormat with nothing to contribute. To gain the respect of senior people, you need to learn when it’s important to disagree, and then, how to do it in a strategic way.