When you and an employee disagree, you can engage – or not
  • leadership
  • Blog post

When you and an employee disagree, you can engage – or not

You’re a manager, and one of your employees has just told you – emphatically – that she disagrees with your approach to a problem, issue, or project. What do you do?

The easy answer is something like: Tell them it’s your way or the highway. But you already know that managing people isn’t so simplistic.

In fact, in a situation like this, the first choice you have to make is this: Do I engage with the employee or not? That is to say, do I tackle the disagreement head-on, or do something else?

Protecting yourself
Conflict resolution guru Daniel Robin suggests that you can either engage, or not engage, and gives a rule of thumb for knowing when to do each:

If the issue is more important, engage; if the relationship with the employee is more important, don’t.

In other words, some disagreements aren’t worth risking a blowup with a trusted employee, whereas some may be. Of course, in the latter case, you’re going to try to engage in such a way that the relationship doesn’t suffer, but the issue is important enough that you’ll take it to the mat if necessary.

Robin also suggests two ways of proceeding when you’ve decided not to engage, and three tactics if you’ve decided to go ahead and do so.

If you prefer not to engage, you can:

Avoid. This means strategically pretending the disagreement doesn’t exist, at least for the time being. You might choose to Avoid when the potential cost of the disagreement is very high, and/or one of the parties is emotionally wrought up.

A manager might avoid engaging in a dispute when, for instance, he or she has had a particularly trying day. Avoidance might also work best when a key employee angrily insists on talking about an issue the manager knows will lead to a heated dispute and possibly serious consequences for the employee.

To Avoid disagreement, the manager might simply say, “Let’s not talk about this right now.”

Accommodate. This entails listening and accepting without resistance. In other words, the manager consciously chooses not to exercise his or her power in the situation.

A manager might do this when, for example, a subordinate tasked with choosing a supplier for a $200 item is about to select a vendor about whom the manager has reservations. The manager might decide that the good relationship with the employee is more important than the relatively minor risk of letting the person have their own way.

To Accommodate disagreement, the manager might say: “I have reservations about this, but let’s go ahead with your idea and see how it plays out.”

If you prefer to engage, you can:

Assert. Here, the manager states or restates her position, makes clear that her judgment is final, and gives the reason(s).

Assertion might sound like this: “I know you put a lot of thought into the idea you brought me last week, but I don’t think we can use it. Here’s why…”

Collaborate. Depending on the nature of the disagreement, the manager could suggest to the employee that they work together to resolve it.

Collaboration might sound like this: “It’s too bad we can’t use your idea as is. Do you want to come up with some alternatives and meet with me next week? I’ll give some thought to the issue and bring some alternatives of my own. Maybe we can hash out something mutually acceptable.”

Note that in this case the manager isn’t accepting the employee’s position, but he isn’t insisting on a position of his own, either. He’s saying both parties need to come up with more ideas.

Compromise. This approach resembles collaboration but isn’t identical to it. Here, the manager gives ground on an aspect or aspects of the disagreement, and asks the employee to do the same on other aspects.

Compromise might sound like this: “Look, I can’t accept your ideas about Points W and X. They just won’t work in our context. But we may be able to do something with Y and Z. Will that work for you?”

Of course, you can use assertion in combination with collaboration and/or compromise to engage constructively with the employee over the disagreement.

A final caution: Whether you engage or disengage, you can’t be entirely sure how the employee will react. But by being aware of your options, you give yourself a much better chance of coming out of the disagreement with a positive result – and with your relationship with the person intact.

Source: See more from Daniel Robin at www.abetterworkplace.com

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