The Art of Disagreeing

Research shows that people who voice their opposition at work perform better and earn more respect. But saying no is an art.

Published: Nov 6, 2019

Many of us, particularly in the early part of our careers, feel we always need to say yes. We think it will make us look good, endear us to our bosses, and help us move up the career ladder.

The truth is, saying no might be even more powerful. According to researchers at Harvard University, those who voice their opposition at work tend to perform better and receive higher marks from their higher-ups than those who conform to everyone around them. That's because in many situations, being critical is necessary to progress. "If you're a hundred percent in agreement, I guarantee you're not coming up with the best ideas," says Nancy Von Horn, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

Too often, naysayers just say they don't like an idea but lack other options.

But saying no isn't always done correctly. If you go overboard, you can end up becoming the office naysayer, who's seen as a constant impediment to progress or as someone who isn't a team player. And if you express yourself and then continue to resist after you've lost, you may further erode your reputation. Here's how you can express yourself without becoming the Negative Nancy your bosses will remember for all the wrong reasons.

Consider your motivation.

Before you argue against a new strategy or initiative, first you need to know what's driving your feelings. "Identify your motivation," Von Horn says. "Do you know why you're disagreeing?" If you find you're just annoyed that there's a change in how you're used to doing things, think twice about expressing yourself. Your higher-ups won't find your remarks helpful; instead, it'll appear as if you're not agile enough for the organization.

By getting to the root of what you dislike about the plan, you're also subconsciously formulating the issues you'll want to relay to your colleagues. If, for instance, you disagree with a strategy because you've seen other areas of the company try a similar tactic to no avail, then you can share that information and any relevant data when you express your concerns. That will help you build an argument as opposed to just a complaint.

Express yourself with tact and solutions.

The difference between productive and unproductive criticism often comes down to approach. People who are seen as grumpy bottlenecks often express their opinions without considering who might be affected. But if you want to offer criticism well, you have to do it with emotional intelligence-the ability to read and respond to people empathetically. Instead of simply stating what you feel, ask questions to ensure that you're understanding the various aspects of the situation: the reasoning behind the idea, where it came from, and what it's intended to achieve. Listen to the responses you're getting, and take time to consider others' points of view. Resist the urge to be overly emotional or make things personal. By going about the conversation this way, you can open people's eyes to your concerns without trampling on the notion outright.

When possible, it's also best to avoid expressing your concerns during large group meetings; if you can get the main decision-makers alone, they'll likely be more receptive than they'd be in front of a large audience. Don't forget to back up your points with as much relevant data and information as you can. "At the end of the day, you have to tie it to numbers," Von Horn says. It's also good to express negative opinions with alternative solutions. Too often, naysayers just say they don't like an idea but lack other options. This makes them come off as complainers instead of problem-solvers.

Know when to give in.

You're not going to win every battle. In cases where you've fought and lost, don't sulk or complain or try to make your point again. You have to accept the decision-assuming there's no legal or ethical reason you shouldn't-and move on. If you don't, you may make higher-ups question your commitment to the overall company, and leave them wondering if you're just peddling your own agenda.

One of the best ways to show that you're on board is to recruit a team you know is jazzed about the project. They can provide the enthusiasm that may be hard for you to muster, so you can focus on showing management that you can deliver in even the most adverse circumstances.

The ultimate career guide, from Korn Ferry CEO and New York Times best-selling author, Gary Burnison
Complimentary with every Premium subscription
It Starts With You...
How to take control, uncover your blind spots and make more money.
...But It’s Not About You
Surviving bosses and coworkers, managing, and networking success.
To Earn More, Learn More
Don't be a know-it-all, be a learn-it-all with practical advice and tools.
"Advance gives you a wealth of practical and actionable advice. You'll have what you need to take control of your career, starting today."