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Over the past couple of years I have been working for a startup, reporting directly to the CEO. There are other teams that I work with that he also manages, but I work by myself. Over this time he has earned my respect and I trust his leadership.

There have been few occasions where I have outright disagreed with a decision he has made. In the past when I disagreed with him, I would put forward (in a one-on-one meeting) my reasoning why I think another option would be better in a polite, respectful way. If he turns my idea down then I let go and trust his decision.

Over the past few weeks, I have seen an employee on another team (also managed by my boss) disagree with a technical decision in front of myself and other members on his team. He did not back down when his idea was declined, but rather continued to force his opinion and would not take no for an answer. My boss had to be quite stern to bring the discussion to an end.

This is the first time I've seen someone so blatantly disagree with their superior in a public way and not back down. I was quite surprised because it is something I would never do myself. I work in the USA but am a foreign national, and this isn't something I've encountered before.

It lead me to question if I am too polite in the workplace. Perhaps this behavior is more acceptable than I think it is. So, is it professional to publicly disagree with a superior in such a way?

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It depends on a few factors. I'll break it down:

Is it professional to disagree with a superior's technical decision

Yeah, it is. I'm assuming you're some kind of technical expert or other, so if you have reason to believe that a bad decision (within your domain) is being made, you should bring that up. It's a big part of your job; you're hired for your technical expertise. Share it when it's relevant.

Is it professional to disagree with a superior's technical decision in front of the team?

It can be. Depends on the setting. Especially if this is a architecture or planning meeting, bringing up possible problems is important. If this is a completely new idea or decision, it might be worth bringing up potential problems.

On the other hand, if this is something that's been decided on a while ago and it's just a restatement of a made decision, it's probably not okay to disagree again. Either you've already been heard and overruled, or it's already been made clear that you're not involved in this discussion.

Is it professional to try and force your opinion after you've been told that your idea has been declined?

Almost certainly not. Unless it's a literal life and death situation, at some point you'll have to accept that someone is in charge of making the final decision and it's not you.

3

It lead me to question if I am too polite in the workplace. Perhaps this behavior is more acceptable than I think it is. So, is it professional to publicly disagree with a superior in such a way?

Every environment is different. As you saw in the discussion on Meta, the US is a big place with lots of differences (regional, industry-wise, and company-wise).

But the fact that your boss "had to be quite stern to bring the discussion to an end" tells me that he viewed it unfavorably. If I worked there, that's all I'd need to know.

Not taking no for an answer, when the "No" comes directly and repeatedly from your boss has been frowned upon in every company where I have worked in the US. In some companies this would be called "a bad career move".

  • I think in all companies that's "a bad career move". – Azuaron Nov 7 '16 at 0:30
  • @Azuaron That would be fun to be in a company saying "no" repeadtedbly for yor boss would be a good career move, not sure the company would last long still :P – Walfrat Nov 7 '16 at 11:00
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There is a time and place for everything including lively discussion and strongly worded disagreement. There are also right ways and wrong ways to express disagreement.

The way you express disagreement is the right way. You want to be polite about your disagreements because 1. it doesn't hurt to be polite; 2. you may not have all the facts in hand at the time you expressed your disagreement - not your fault if no one told you; 3. if you express disagreement and you are polite about it, being proved wrong will not usually result in a loss of face for you; 4. you don't want the collateral damage of you being right to be your boss losing face either - many individuals would rather double down than accept losing face.

The way your colleague is expressing disagreement is the wrong way. He is being maximally disruptive. Rather than express disagreement in a way that affirms the manager's authority, he is expressing disagreement in a way that leaves the manager little room to back away from his decision even if the decision is universally regarded as wrong - anything can happen when egos clash. Your colleague is not acting as a member of the team, he is acting like he is on a crusade. Here is a news flash: nobody likes to be at the receiving end of a crusade, nobody likes to have their authority and their prerogatives challenged and that includes his manager.

The content of the disagreement is important. The tone in which the disagreement is expressed is important. The venue and the timing at which the disagreement is expressed is important. Who you choose to express your disagreement with - that's important. How you express your disagreements defines you as an effective professional and as a solid member of your team. Try to express your disagreements in a way that singles you out as an individual others can have confidence in, want to work with and look forward to working with.

Challenging decisions that have been made is about as welcome as re-fighting lost battles and re-opening wounds that are covered with scar tissue. If you have a strong objection, object for the record and for future reference if and when the decision gets re-visited but don't get in the way and don't spark a fight. If they hate your guts when you are speaking up now, there's no telling what they'd do to you if you expressed disagreement in public and you are proved to be right.

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A good manager wouldn't let this happen (at least in my opinion).

If someone strongly disagreed with a manager, I'd expect the manager to say "Ok, my door's open, lets talk about this afterwards and see how we can sort this one out", and then carry on with the meeting.

Open-house arguments are rarely productive.

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