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Every workplace should train employees to disagree with the boss – here’s why

The worst accident in the history of aviation happened on the Spanish Island of Tenerife on March 27 1977 when a KLM 747 taking off crashed into a Pan Am 747 that was still on the runway.

A long chain of events led up to the crash, but one of the major causes was that the captain of the KLM flight chose to ignore a crucial warning from his co-workers in the cockpit.

The KLM captain was no novice – in fact he was one of KLM’s most experienced pilots, the head of pilot safety training at KLM and featured in some of the company’s ads.

On the day of the crash the flight was already significantly delayed and any more delays would have forced the plane to stay on Tenerife overnight to comply with pilot rest requirements.

The captain, being eager to get off the ground, misheard an instruction from the control tower. He thought he was cleared for take off even though another plane was still on the runway, though he couldn’t see it in the heavy fog.

Then, and this is crucial, he ignored concerns from both his co-pilot and his flight engineer and proceeded to take off down the runway, eventually hitting the other plane. 583 people died.

As a result, “less experienced flight crew members were encouraged to challenge their captains when they believed something was not correct, and captains were instructed to listen to their crew and evaluate all decisions in light of crew concerns” (source).

This is obviously a horrific example but the learning that applies to all workplaces is that much is gained if:

  1. Employees can voice their disagreements with managers
  2. Managers can listen to their employees

However, the implicit power imbalance between employees and managers means that this is not something people do automatically. You have to explicitly train both of these aspects in order to make sure that it becomes part of the corporate culture.

There are three reasons why a company should do this.

1: You avoid mistakes

If the KLM captain had listened to his subordinates that accident would have been avoided.

How many accidents, mistakes and errors are allowed to happen daily in workplaces around the world because employees are too intimidated to disagree with the boss or are ignored when they do so?

2: You make employees feel valued

I recounted that story with great sadness, as it had been agonizing to watch my patient suffer through treatments that I believed he would not have chosen had he known the harm they could cause and the unlikeliness of being cured.

He eventually was admitted to hospice and died, but only after the chemo had left him with unstoppable and painful bleeding in his bladder, robbing him of a more peaceful and more comfortable end to his life.

This is from a NYT story written by a nurse who believed that one of her patients was receiving an unnecessary and incredibly painful round of chemo. She raised her concerns to a doctor and was promptly ignored. Reading the story makes it clear that this made her unhappy. Not only was her patient suffering needlessly but her expertise and judgment was being ignored.

The nurse goes on to write this:

Many of the nurses I know could share their own, dramatic stories of rescuing patients or catching frightening errors by other health care workers, including doctors.

3: You can weed out managers who are unable to take advice

And finally, giving employees permission to disagree and managers the obligation to listen and act on disagreement could help weed out those managers who are pathologically incapable of ever admitting error or admitting that they might not know everything already.

That kind of boss is endemic (and is even celebrated in many workplaces) but is ultimately incredibly damaging to business results.

Furthermore, when managers keep screwing up, it’s usually up to employees to keep fixing their mistakes and dealing with the fallout which clearly makes people frustrated and unhappy at work.

The upshot

There are plenty of articles out there with tips on how to disagree with your boss but most of them suffer from one fundamental problem: They take it as a given that the boss has the power, and therefore it is the responsibility of the employee to raise their disagreement in a respectful way that doesn’t bruise the bosses ego.

Also, many bosses see disagreement from subordinates as a sign of disloyalty and disrespect. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Disagreeing with what you see as a bad decision is in fact a sign of engagement and bosses should learn to appreciate that.

So I say we should turn that around and create workplaces where anyone is free to disagree with anyone else.

And this should apply not only to imminent mistakes but also to workplace practices, workloads, task assignments – everything. Every time you as an employee see something you disagree with or think is wrong you should be able to speak up and know that your concerns will be taken seriously.

Your take

Are you free to disagree with your boss at work? Will your boss listen? What if you can see your workplace doing something silly or wrong – do you know how and when to raise that?

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2 thoughts on “Every workplace should train employees to disagree with the boss – here’s why”

  1. Great observation Alexander!

    I remember David Kelley of IDEO saying years ago in an ABC Nightline story on his firm’s approach to innovation, “do you think the boss is likely to have the best ideas? Probably not.”

    If you can’t disagree I would add you won’t be likely to able to innovate or create much either.

    Keep creating…and disagreeing,
    Mike

  2. I had once raised a disagreement with a superior in a corporate office I was working with some three years back. But I did it in a polite way and in the manner by which to avoid bruising the boss’s ego. Three days later, I was fired.

    My boss really thinks that by cleaving to the rule of book could also mean giving him the license to become the always-right-person who matters. Excessive love of procedure is, actually and in fact, a recipe for disaster because it often affords one to fail to prioritize things that need to be.

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