Thursday, January 21, 2016

Early-Career Communication Part 1: Expressing Dissent

Kendell Brown, Associate Director of Graduate Career Services
How can you express dissent without sounding like a troublemaker? The key is to respectfully and intelligently highlight your thoughts and opinions without letting your emotions get in the way. Here are several strategies you can utilize. Each strategy works best in a particular scenario. So think through the situation you find yourself in and choose the option that is best.

Option 1 – Ask questions.

You can pose questions for the team to consider. Questions like – “Did anyone consider how the new pricing system would impact our smaller customers?” or “What about thinking through the likelihood that Legal will agree to those revised contract terms?” This way you are not seen as the one trying to kill an idea, instead you are viewed as someone who is thinking two-steps ahead of everyone else. When dissent is packaged this way, you are actually seen as being organizationally savvy enough to foresee potential roadblocks. Your comments may be construed as a “head’s up” versus negativity.

Option 2 – Highlight contra-indicative information.

Stating key facts is an alternative for highlighting a disagreement without fully owning it. A statement such as “Decreasing the timeline by 3 weeks will cause us to be 25% over budget.” A well-documented fact cannot be argued. In this situation, you are not seen as rabble rousing, instead you’ll be perceived as knowledgeable and informed. This is best for those times when you’re new to the team or you work in a highly consensus-building organization.

Options 1 and 2 are appropriate for when you want to de-personalize your dissent and you don’t want to be known as an “agitator”.  These strategies are most effective when you don’t yet have an established workplace brand or you don’t want to branded as the company instigator.

Now let’s Consider those times when you’re in a team meeting, an idea gets thrown out that generates a lot of excitement and energy. However, you for whatever reason are not in agreement. What can you do? Let’s continue with our countdown of options.

Option 3  Be blunt.

“I respectfully disagree.” Clearly stating your thoughts leaves no room for ambiguity and is sometimes the best course of action. This tactic is best for when you can speak from direct knowledge or experience, letting others know your (well-informed) opinion can stop the team from wasting valuable time and resources. Utilize this option when you past experiences closely align with the plan the team is considering. Thus your opinion is not a point of view, it’s actually a case study.

Option 4 – Be cagey.

“Let me play devil’s advocate…This is a way to insert some of your concerns into the conversation without explicitly disagreeing. This course of action is best when you believe the team needs to think through issues to a greater degree. Perhaps you like the general direction the team is taking, yet you are concerned about some of the details. Consequently, this option is best when you feel the team needs to do some further thinking about how to bring an idea to fruition.

Now let’s think about that same meeting. However, instead of disagreeing, you have your own idea that you want the team to consider. This leads me to Options 5 and 6:

Option 5 – Be provocative.

“Ok, this is going to seem as if it’s coming from left field, but what about we turn this thing on its head and look at it in an entirely different way?”

You should reserve Option 5 for when you have an idea that drastically changes the direction of the conversation, because you want to embolden and broaden the discussion.

Let’s continue with our team meeting scenario and discuss our 6th and final option. Perhaps as the team was talking, your concerns grew. Yet, you never said anything. So how do you disagree at a later point in time?

Option 6 – Present an alternative.

As time passes, it’s still acceptable to disagree. However, you should recognize that as time passes, it’s likely the commitment to the decision has grown and thus the challenge of getting people to change course has grown. Consequently, you have to do more than simply disagree; you need to also propose an alternative solution. This solution should be well-thought out and detailed. Ideally, it should include a new perspective, supporting evidence, a course of action, goals and success metrics. Although Option 6 requires a lot of work, the result can be immense. First and foremost, you can potentially save the team from pursuing the wrong path. Additionally, you may become the new team “hero”. Of course, the chances of you persuading the team to change are not guaranteed. No matter the final outcome, utilizing Option 6 you have added to your personal brand. You will be seen as someone that strongly advocates for your point of view. Additionally, you will earn the title of problem solver.

Option 6 is obviously best when a decision doesn’t need to be made right away and when you have the information to compose a compelling alternative.

So I’ve given you six ways to effectively disagree. Using any of these strategies, you avoid being labeled a troublemaker or malcontent. Instead you’ll be viewed as forward thinker, bold speaker and smart risk taker. It’s important to note that expressing disagreement is fine and in many organizations it is expected. However, once a decision has been made, it’s necessary for you to get on board and not cling to your dissent. Otherwise, you risk the goodwill you created by appropriately disagreeing. After your opinion has been expressed and fully vetted, no matter the outcome, you now need to move forward with the team and its decision.

Early-Career Communication is a four-part series by Kendell Brown, Associate Director of Kelley School of Business Graduate Career Services. Kendell and her team meet and coach hundreds of students, alumni, and corporate partners on tried and true recruiting methods, interviewing tactics, and career management strategies, while staying in tune to how these areas are changing and evolving. Email Kendell at

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