How to disagree with your boss


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Human resources departments were lauded in the pandemic as they helped staff deal with physical and mental wellbeing. Now, heading into difficult economic times, HR professionals are likely to face tough conversations as companies lay off staff and those who are left face heavy workloads.

When we recorded this week’s Working It podcast, which we’ve called “What is the point of HR?”, I had in mind the sprawling remit of anything to do with “people” in a company. As workplaces get more human-focused, just about anything can be put into the HR bucket. It can be overwhelming, and it’s confusing.

Georgina Shaw, from the cosmetics brand Lush, gave us a vision of a different way of doing things. Rather than having an HR department, Lush embeds “great people people” — into different departments, putting them in charge of navigating interpersonal tensions and difficult conversations in the group, as well as learning and development.

Is there a better way to manage HR matters at work? I’d be interested to hear from readers on this. I also spoke to Jamie Fiore Higgins, an ex-Goldman Sachs executive, who would like HR to be independent of corporate structures (her memoir, Bully Market, is a must-read for anyone interested in corporate culture).

Next week, we talk about divided workforces. Politics has polarised society, and workplaces are no different. How should business leaders deal with that? I had really surprising and interesting conversations about this topic — with lots of useful takeaways. Watch this space.

Below, Sophia talks to a conflict and communication expert about how to handle disagreements with your boss. Read on for practical advice on this topic.

PS We’ve changed the format of the newsletter this week, in response to reader feedback. Keep it coming! Email us at [email protected] (Isabel Berwick)

Top stories from the world of work:

  1. How not to fire people: About 120,000 tech workers have been laid off so far this year. While lay-offs aren’t always avoidable, it pays to be as empathetic as possible in the process, writes Brooke Masters.

  2. New job, new you? Well, maybe . . . : Changing careers can be exciting — but it’s not always the answer to working life’s problems. Making smaller changes can prove to have a bigger impact than we expect, writes Emma Jacobs.

  3. Business books to read this month: FT editors share their recommendations on the best new business books, exploring subjects from the economic revolution of artificial intelligence to communications lessons from Jeff Bezos.

  4. Cult of the star business leader is dangerous: From WeWork to FTX, a commonality between major business collapses over the past five years has been the downfall of a supersized dream salesman.

  5. Tech lay-offs teach us a lesson about the ‘war for talent’: Young people used to have to choose between being miserable at a well-paying job — or pursuing something fun for less money. The rise of big tech gave them the best of both worlds. But now, the bubble is bursting.

Disagree with your boss, successfully

© FT montage/AFP/Dreamstime

Last week, Elon Musk reportedly fired about a dozen engineers after they openly opposed him. It’s an extreme example of what can happen when you disagree with your boss. You’ll almost certainly disagree with your manager at some point in your career. How should you let them know? Should you risk bringing it up?

Amy Gallo, author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) says that a risk assessment can help you decide whether or not to disagree with or correct your boss. While most people only consider the risks of speaking up, Amy says, she advises first focusing on the risks of inaction to overcome fear of confrontation. Would a project be at risk? Is your boss unaware of something that might blindside them later on? Is there a personal risk for you if you stay silent? Or would you feel that your silence enables the mistreatment of others or something else that runs counter to your values?

Next, consider the risks of speaking up — it could hurt your relationship with your boss or cause reputational damage. Although unlikely, there’s also a chance you risk being fired.

Once you’ve decided to raise an issue with your boss, think about when and where to do it. A one-on-one chat is usually the best option because “your boss is going to be more receptive and less defensive”, Amy says. You might choose to speak up publicly, however, if you know your boss might dismiss something privately — or if you want others to know that you’re taking a stand.

Approach the conversation by asking for permission, Amy suggests. You might start the discussion by saying: “I have a disagreement I’d like to work through with you, is it OK if I voice it now?” This will prepare your boss for the conversation.“Be appropriately deferential”, Amy adds. “You can assuage their ego by saying ‘You’ll make the final call of course, but I just want to share my perspective’.”

These conversations are easier when you’ve already talked to your boss about conflict resolution. When you are both in a good place — after a good performance review or a successful project — ask them how they’d like you to talk to them in the event that you don’t see eye-to-eye. “You’ll get a sense of whether they’re even open to being disagreed with,” Amy says.

If it doesn’t go well, don’t panic. Ask for input from others, particularly if they were direct observers or know your boss well, Amy suggests. Reflect on why it went less well than expected. Did your boss get defensive? Did you not make your point clearly? Then, address it in a follow-up conversation. “Sometimes the ‘conflict’ conversation is just the first step — and the ‘repair’ conversation is the next step,” says Dr Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of mental healthcare provider Coa.

Afterwards, try not to dwell too much on the issue. “Conflict for a relationship is like exercise for muscles,” Emily adds. “Relationships come back stronger after conflict as long as there’s repair.”

To move forward from a conflict with your boss, ask yourself if there’s something you can offer to do for them. “Not in a kiss-up way, but so that they know you’re not just trying to take them down,” Amy adds. Maybe there’s a project you can work on together — anything that helps you get back to the give-and-take that work relationships are built on. (Sophia Smith)

Childcare costs are squeezing parents into an impossible situation, and many FT readers have chimed in to share how they have been affected.

Reader Reedo admits they feel the strain, even as a high earner:

My marginal tax rate will be over 70 per cent, meaning I won’t be able to claim childcare support. Our joint after-tax income is high, but childcare seems perfectly priced to take us from comfortable to on-edge, and I am not budget shy. We are very well off and should be well placed for kids — if the arithmetic doesn’t work for us. Who does it work for?

Reader PBG points out that the situation is taking workers out of the labour force at a moment when the economy would benefit from more workers:

My husband and I are both high earners, yet the cost of sending two children to childcare plus a mortgage leaves us with very little disposable income. The country is stuck in a dichotomy: trying to get more women in the workforce whilst having prohibitively high childcare costs. No wonder many women (who [bear] the lion’s share of childcare) end up leaving work, changing jobs or taking reduced hours. This country needs more people working — not less — in order to pay for various services (NHS, education, social care) which are already at a breaking point. It is no surprise that the birth rate is declining in this country when I see little incentive to have more children.

Reader GreaterFoolStrikesAgain argues that a simple policy change would lead to more equitable pay between men and women:

Childcare costs should be fully tax deductible if both parents are working. Otherwise, tax introduces an inefficient wedge into the decision on whether to work on not, disproportionately affecting women. Until we sort this out, gender pay equality is a distant dream.

And reader mr_e steps back to look at all aspects of the system:

You are either cast as a failure for focusing on your children rather than conforming to the both-parents-should-have-a-high-flying-job model of success, or else both parents try to hold down a job and don’t really enjoy life since the system is working against them every step of the way.

Our system — anaemic parental leave policies, taxes, childcare regulation, Brexit/au pair ban and the deluded social expectations that fathers be dedicated to work but also 100 per cent involved in child rearing — isn’t designed to support families.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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