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Recently, a former colleague of mine (let’s call him “Jack”) revealed a sad but common story. A coworker who didn’t like Jack’s project plan recently blind-sided him. The coworker went directly to Jack’s boss behind his back and presented an alternative plan. Jack’s boss bought it, leaving Jack caught off guard and rightly upset.
What’s worse is that Jack didn’t know there was an issue. The coworker had never voiced disagreement to Jack directly.
Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of a surprise move like this. Or maybe you’ve been the offender. When dealing with disagreement, it can be tempting to go over someone’s head to get a quick resolution. But it often comes at the expense of trust in the workplace. It’s too easy to build a reputation as a poor collaborator or passive-aggressive leader.
DON’T BE THAT PERSON
Sometimes it’s better to pause. If you elevate too quickly or without the proper collaboration, things usually backfire and no one wins. When someone elevates a decision on their own, it makes everyone look bad regardless of who’s right or wrong (and often there is no right or wrong).
Fortunately, there is a way to navigate conflict and disagreement so that everyone builds a positive reputation together. I’ve taken a method that has worked for me on a number of occasions and broken it down into 10 key steps. The first five steps help avoid having to elevate a decision. The last five steps ensure a successful meeting in those rare moments where you feel you still must elevate.
1) UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT AND FACTS
Your first instinct should always be to gather information related to the disagreement or decision. What are all of the facts? What is the information you know to be true? Which key pieces of information do you lack? What don’t you know? Where can you get additional information to aid with decision-making? What would your manager expect you to know? What homework needs to be done?
Once you feel you have most of the information necessary, you may even form a preliminary opinion regarding the decision that needs to be made. Write it down in your notebook and, for now, keep it to yourself.
2) GET DIFFERING VIEWPOINTS
Seek out the opinions of others whom you respect. Talk to those that are directly tied to the work or on the project team. You can also benefit from the outside perspective of those less involved.
Don’t limit yourself to those who might agree with your thinking, or those who prefer the way it’s always been done in the past. Look for opposing views and rationale. Find the devil’s advocate.
Reserve judgment. Just listen. You may learn something new and find you’ve changed your mind. Perhaps you now agree with a differing view. Your potential conflict may actually end right here.
3) KNOW WHERE EACH PARTY STANDS
This critical step prevents surprises. Do not guess or assume. Instead you must know where each major party, team member or influencer stands.
Remember when you had that early opinion but you kept it to yourself? Good thing you did. Because being perceived as neutral helps you uncover what others are thinking. Your cross-functional team members will feel more open to reveal their perspective if they feel they aren’t being opposed out of the gate.
4) ENGAGE THE LEADER OR PRIMARY COLLABORATORS
Let’s say you’ve gotten this far, and you’ve identified a key point of disagreement that seems difficult to resolve. The very next question you should ask is “Who owns this decision?”
You should engage the key decision maker or influencer in a 1:1 conversation. If you are not the decision owner or project lead, express your concern directly to that person. Never skip this step.
If you skip this step, you will have made yourself the problem. You become the one who is passive aggressive or playing politics. Don’t be that person.
If you are the decision owner or project lead, you should proactively engage the primary collaborators who disagree with you. Failure to do so means you will often be surprised later on.
5) WORK TOWARDS A MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL SOLUTION
I’ve found the most important factor in working out disagreements is to set aside the idea that there has to be a winner and a loser. In most cases, there is no right or wrong. There are simply different perspectives based on different sets of experiences. Two very smart people can still disagree.
At this point you should be looking for ways to say yes. Saying yes doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on what you want. Think, “yes… and.” There is often a solution that allows you to say yes and still achieve what you want.
There will always be some instance where you still can’t agree. That’s OK. You can agree to disagree in a professional manner. Set your emotions aside and use the next five steps to elevate the right way.
6) MUTUALLY AGREE TO ELEVATE
Always avoid going over someone’s head, particularly without them knowing about it. It makes both of you look bad. However, you can elevate if everyone is in the know.
You can look each other in the eye, recognize the disagreement for what it’s worth, and agree that you need a tie-breaker. People usually get this. By mutually agreeing that the tie-breaker is necessary, you’ve reduced the chances that someone will commit passive-aggressive or political behavior.
7) AGREE ON THE SPECIFIC QUESTION OR DECISION
Before you just run into your (or their) boss’ office and ask what they think, you’ll need to do some planning for a successful meeting. You should discuss with your colleague in advance the points of agreement that are not in question. This will keep the conversation focused on what matters and avoids confusion. And, first communicating to a superior where you agree presents both parties in a positive light.
Then you should outline together the exact question/decision you want answered in the meeting. That is the sole meeting objective. The facts, points of agreement, and single point of disagreement become the background you will share together at your elevation meeting.
8) AGREE TO THE INFORMATION REQUIRED
You should then spend some time thinking together about how you want to present the information. It’s important that it doesn’t feel one-sided. For example, if only one of you presents just the facts that support your side, the meeting will be antagonistic and the purpose defeated.
It’s ideal to agree on a one-pager with specific information you both agree should be presented. Or, if you must, two single pages each with rationale for each view.
9) AGREE TO THE REQUIRED PARTIES
Agree on exactly who needs to be there. This should be a very small meeting with information presented objectively. Strive to only have three mission-critical people in the meeting: you, your colleague, and the superior who will decide. Only include additional parties if they are critical to the decision and if you both agree they should be present.
Avoid one-sided meetings or gang-ups. Avoid the urge to call in reinforcements to overpower or bring weight to a specific side.
10) HAVE THE MEETING
By now, the above steps should have set a positive and respectful foundation, leading to good discussion. Oftentimes, even if someone doesn’t get the answer they want, the work leading up to the meeting forms a foundation of trust so that they can at least live with and support the decision.
If you get the outcome you intend, great. If you don’t get the outcome you want, at least you’ll feel the process was fair and will maintain positive working relationships. Navigating these waters well will reflect positively on you no matter the final outcome.
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Kevin Namaky is CEO at the Gurulocity Brand Management Institute, a marketing education company that trains and consults for notable brand teams including Kimberly-Clark, Scotts Miracle-Gro, Bolthouse Farms and Gorilla Brands. Kevin is a featured instructor for the American Marketing Association, lectures at the IU Kelley School of business, and has been featured in Ad Age, Forbes, Fast Company and the CMO Council. Previously Kevin worked for 20 years in the corporate and agency world growing notable brands. Follow/connect with Kevin on LinkedIn, TikTok and Twitter.