We must be ever courteous and patient with those who do not see eye-to-eye with us. We must resolutely refuse to consider our opponents as enemies. - Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
From a young age, I was quite comfortable speaking my mind. Even as a small child, I read a lot, which meant that I got information from many sources. I liked questioning traditions, debating rules, and disagreeing with commonly held beliefs. Some family members encouraged me to speak my mind, while others cautioned me to be careful and not to stir things up.
I should explain that I grew up in a culture where children were not encouraged to have an opinion – especially girls. Society expected us to be "seen and not heard," and to fit in with whatever we were told to do. If you dared to disagree with someone older or more powerful than you, you were quickly labeled as a troublemaker, a rebel or disobedient. This practice frustrated me endlessly.
There was also a religious dimension to deal with. My parents belonged to a church with strict rules and rigid leaders. As I grew older I questioned many of their rules and traditions, because I disagreed with how they treated people. My big "sin" was to voice my disagreement and I was labeled as unruly and a bad influence.
Later in life, I came to understand that it's easier for some leaders to label and vilify someone who disagrees with them, rather than to think differently or question their own beliefs. This is especially true if the person who disagrees with them is in a less powerful position.
Disagreeing With Powerful People
So, why do people often opt to keep quiet rather than disagree with powerful people or institutions?
Here are all the questions and some responses from our Twitter chat.
Q1 Who do you think of in the workplace as "powerful," and why?
@Singh_Vandana Anybody who is in a position of authority is powerful as they can make or break your career.
@Yolande_MT People who know how to play workplace politics are often seen as powerful.
Q2 Why do people fear disagreeing with a powerful person?
@LorenMargolis For fear of backlash and looking like a rabble-rouser.
@Jikster2009 Fear of being isolated, belittled, pigeon-holed as troublemaker, publicly dressed down, possible future issues too.
Q3 What experiences have you had when you disagreed with powerful people? What happened?
@TalentExch_Biz In some cases I was more respected & valued. In others it was a difficult road. It depends on the person with power & their fears.
@JKatzaman I've tried to go along to get along, although, even doing that, I've had career setbacks out of spite or arrogance.
Q4 How do you decide when or when not to disagree with a powerful person?
@harrisonia I'll disagree with a powerful person when I am armed with facts and rational logic to support my view.
@MicheleDD_MT I always start with intent. What’s my motive? If it’s a small issue, and the impact is not huge, I’ll let it go.
Q5 How might you approach a senior/powerful person that you disagree with? What would you say?
@TwisterKW Ask for the time to talk. Explain goal/intention. Open a dialogue, not an attack. Be prepared. Be confident. Be open/flexible.
@PG_pmp One can make a point politely by saying "This is what I think, please correct me if I am wrong."
Q6 How can you keep calm and clear headed while having this potentially difficult conversation?
@Midgie_MT Having written notes can sometimes help. Then, remind yourself to keep breathing, this helps reduce stress levels!
@ZalkaB Keep in mind that it's not about you vs them, but it's a bigger picture. Relax, breathe, keep civil and stay true to yourself.
Q7 How has it benefited you in the past to disagree with a powerful person?
@ShereesePubHlth The fallout fueled my passion and resolve to launch my own business & I've never regretted it.
@KasturiB25 It has benefited me by boosting my confidence.
Q8 If your team disagrees with a powerful person but you have a responsibility to support that person, what do you do?
@SistadaHealer Do your job and support them. Maybe later the team can come together to address the disagreement.
@BNBBooks If the team has the facts and data to support them, back the team up and bring it up with the powerful person - one on one.
Q9 What's the benefit/risk to the powerful person of inviting/accepting disagreement?
@NicolaBlairHRP The risk could be that it undermines their authority.
@npi__ I'm not sure if seen as benefit/risk but it certainly shows me that this powerful person has leadership skills.
Q10 If you're in a position of authority, how can you put others at ease about disagreeing with you?
@ColeCreativeBOS Follow up with coworkers regarding their disagreement, it reinforces that they've been heard and that it made a difference.
@KLC2978 Be open, honest. Accept criticism in a positive way. Reflect.
Next time, on #MTtalk...
Have you ever disregarded the hierarchy and gone over your boss' head? If so, why? Please cast your vote in our Twitter poll over here.
In our next #MTtalk on Friday 31 March, our topic is "Disrupting the Hierarchy." We'll discuss the role that hierarchy plays, why employees sometimes ignore it and how to handle them. Please join us at 1pm EST / 5pm GMT / 10:30pm IST.
To participate in our chat about disrupting the hierarchy, type #MTtalk in the Twitter search function. Then, click on “All Tweets” and you’ll be able to follow the live chat feed. To join the conversation, simply include #MTtalk in your tweet and it will show up in the chat feed.
In the meantime, here are some resources about disagreeing with powerful people: