Is There a Good Way to Disagree at Work?

I sat at my editorial meeting a couple weeks ago with my heart pounding as my manager spoke about a new work process he wanted to institute. Everyone but me—the one who would be most impacted—had been consulted. Yet I knew resisting would be futile. So I looked away from him as he spoke, my gaze trained outside the window as I could feel my blood pressure, usually on the low side of normal, rising through the top of my head. When he stopped speaking, I snapped at him that I would do it, though I wasn’t happy about it. I even pounded the conference table with my petite fist. I detached from there, speaking calmly and then focusing on the other business of the meeting, taking notes on new icons for our Website to communicate to the art department. I quickly pulled myself together, and calmly worked through the rest of the meeting. But, of course, that’s not the way to disagree in the workplace. Have you—or your employees or managers—ever experienced something similar?

The eruption of temper in workplace disagreement seems to come most often from a situation the angered person finds intractable and unending—an annoyance that isn’t going to be avoided, and is going to replay in a similar form again and again because the angered employee doesn’t get along, or isn’t compatible, with a co-worker or manager.

The question is whether it’s smart to stop fighting, which I’ve done, knowing you and the source of your anger are usually not on the same page, or whether not fighting only makes you angrier because you’re then trying to hold everything inside.

An article I found in the Economic Times, “5 Ways to Deal with Disagreement at Work,” by Varuni Khosla, advises, first, to keep emotions in check, noting that if you get upset, it will only elevate the pressure in the room, pushing others to also raise their tempers. So it wasn’t wrong for me to point out my displeasure, but instead of snapping vocally and pounding my fist on the conference table, I should have calmly said: “I have some concerns about the new process. I’m not happy with it, to tell you the truth. In the future, it would be better if I’m included in the decision-making process when new work processes are being considered. I might have been able to offer an alternative system that would work better for me—the one who the new system is going to impact the most.”

The second tip from Khosla, being respectful while disagreeing, is another tough one when you’re angry. It’s tough because often the reason you’re angry in the first place is that you feel the person you’re angry with has been disrespectful toward you. I often find myself looking anywhere in the room but at my manager as he is speaking. It’s a coping mechanism as much as, or more than, an intended slight. I’m deeply irritated and insulted by this man, and would prefer not to have to look at him. It’s a way of psychologically distancing myself, a mental health expert might say. It’s not respectful to avoid looking at someone as they’re talking. The problem is I’ve already expressed my displeasure and feelings of being unappreciated in writing in performance reviews and in at least a couple face-to-face conversations, and it only provokes excuses and argument from my manager. Would opening that can of worms be a good idea? Or is looking away from him, as flawed a tactic as it is, the better choice?

The third point from Khosla, to keep your differences private, meaning not to gossip about the other person, isn’t hard for me, but I wonder if my manager is reciprocating. I have a sense that many conversations about me, and the publication I work on, have taken place without me present. Sometimes I wonder if you should be suspicious when your manager, or the head of a meeting, wants to keep the conversation super-private. In the office space my company just moved into in September, the offices are glass-walled and in close proximity, so there isn’t much privacy in offices or in cubicles (I share a cubicle with the manager I don’t get along with!). The head of our department held our first editorial meeting in his office since it would just be him, my manager, and myself. It was a civil, productive meeting, I thought. It was when the meeting moved into the conference room, and we were secluded, the following week, that the productivity of the meeting went downhill, and the head of our department got openly disgusted with my manager. The week after it was my turn to be openly disgusted. Would our tempers have risen so openly if we had been in an office, with others listening nearby, rather than isolated in a conference room?

Fourth on Khosla’s list of productive workplace disagreements is to “be calm and resolve differences.” This point reminds me of the first tip on keeping emotions in check. If you somehow can keep yourself from raising your voice, answering in a snarly way, or otherwise losing emotional control, then it’s more likely you can work through differences. The problem I foresee with some workplace personalities, though, is some don’t necessarily want to resolve differences. As I’ve mentioned before in Training Day, there are people in this world who enjoy discord. If a person enjoys discord, difficulty, and complication, does he or she have an incentive to work with you to smooth out differences? After one set of differences has been resolved, will the person then light another tinderbox? That question goes to another question: the type of people who make good managers, and those who should remain individual, or contract, contributors. Should all managers of a productive, happy company be oriented toward solutions that maintain an efficient, livable workflow? Or do some companies want managers who enjoy serving as disrupters? The employees worth keeping, those companies might say, are the ones who are able to survive working under the disrupter. The disrupter serves in those companies as a sort of corporate boot camp. What kind of managers does your company’s culture favor?

Point five from Khosla, to remain polite, covers my earlier story on my difficulty with looking at my manager when he’s speaking. It’s not polite to not look at my manager while he’s talking, but I’m not sure he deserves my manners. It’s hard to give someone something you don’t think they deserve. So my compromise is to maybe try looking at him when he’s speaking to me alone, but perhaps not to look at him when he’s talking to more than just me. Not optimal, but a baby step.

In case you’re wondering, I realize it’s time for me to add energy to my search for a new job.

In the meantime, I’ve discovered a way to gauge how much I like, and get along with, someone. I’ve noticed that when you thoroughly like, and are sympatico with, someone, “arguing” is fun. There’s an underlying mutual affection—and respect—that leads you to see the humor, rather than the anger, in the situation.

What training do you offer to help managers and employees resolve, and even prevent, workplace conflict? Is there a good way to disagree?


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