Managing Upwards (Difficult Conversation)


What do you say when you disagree with someone who has more power than you do? How do you decide whether it is worth speaking up? And if you do, what exactly should you say?
Amy Gallo, 2021

It is natural to prefer to agree with a superior, ie

"...our bodies specialise in survival, so we have a natural bias to avoid situations that might harm us..."
Joseph Grenny as quoted by
Amy Gallo, 2021

You fear of the consequence of negative implications, ie my superior is not going to like me speaking out against him.

Some points to consider

- evaluate the risks (remember your natural bias is to imagine the worst; need to evaluate the risk of not speaking up, ie project/activity/idea, etc is not successful, etc; compared with the potential consequences of not taking action)

- timing (when to voice your opinion is an important consideration; better to do it in a private meeting than a public place)

- supporters (seek the support of people who agree with your point of view and/or are respected by your superior)

- link with a higher purpose (connect your disagreement with a shared goal, interest, activity, etc, ie organisation's best interests; don't make it personal)

- ask permission (be deferential and show respect as this gives the powerful person 'psychological safety' and control, eg

"...I have reason to think that it might not work. I'd like to lay out my reasoning. Would that be okay?..."
Amy Gallo, 2021

This gives your boss the choice to opt in.

- stay calm (remain neutral in your words and actions, like body language; speak slowly and deliberately)

- articulate your understanding of the other person's point of view (need to demonstrate that you understand what you are disagreeing with)

- avoid judgemental  words (do not use words that can be misinterpreted or taken personally, like 'shortsighted', 'foolish', 'hasty', 'naive', etc; focus on facts; stay neutral; use guiding phrases like "I am thinking aloud here", 'tell me where I am wrong with this?', 'have I missed something?', 'there is another way of doing this?', etc)

- stay humble (you are only offering your opinion despite how well-informed or well-researched it is; don't become over confident; be curious about other points of view)

- be positive (appreciate and respect the positives of the other person's point of view; don't focus on the negatives of their point of view; always propose a solution)

- acknowledge their authority (remember: the person in power is the ultimate decision-maker, ie

"...I know you'll make the call here. It is up to you..."
Amy Gallo, 2021

Give them choices; don't use false praise. You

"...want to show respect to the person, while maintaining your own self-respect..."
Holly Weeks as quoted by
Amy Gallo, 2021

Some dos Some don'ts
"...- Explain that you have a different opinion and ask if you can voice it - Assume that disagreeing is going to damage your relationship or career - the consequences are often less dramatic than we think
  - Re-state the original point of view or decision so it's clear you understand it - State your opinion as facts; simply express your point of view and be open to dialogue
  - Speak slowly - talking in an even tone calms you and the other person down..." - Use judgemental words, such as 'hasty', 'foolish', or 'wrong' that might upset or incite your counterpart..."             Amy Gallo, 221


"...when you disagree with someone more powerful than you, you should always have a constructive reason to oppose..."
Victor Chiu as quoted by Amy Gallo, 2021


"...How exactly do you voice dissent with your superior? And is it always worth it to do so?......just agreeing feels easier, but it is not always the best decision to make. Firstly, weigh the risk of push back for a negative reaction from a loss against the risk of not speaking up. If you decide to voice your opinion, there are some best practices to keep in mind. State your opinions as facts, avoid using judgement words. In addition, ask permission to dissent instead of offering an unsolicited opinion. Keep in mind that the final decision is still in the hands of your boss, and being honest and respectful will show them that they have more options..."
Amy Gallo, 2021


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