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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10 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

  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.

  3. Workplaces are mini “sub-cultures” and that means there are varying degrees of actual truth about how focused on the mission people are – and are expected to be. Disagreeing without being disagreeable comes naturally to some, and is a skill that can be learned by others, but there’s also no sugar-coating the need to be perceptive and brave about one’s own situation. It’s crucially important to be able to think out loud, including being able to disagree with the boss, and have that be perfectly OK. But that goes hand in hand with seeing and accepting reality: no matter how inconvenient or disruptive, sometimes the right move is to go somewhere else.

  4. Great post. Sometimes ‘power distance’ becomes a roadblock to ‘disagreeing with boss’. That too if there is a situation to holding the supervisor accountable, it is much worse.
    When there is such difficulty there should be good motivation to do it. Your post provides it.
    Coming to how to do it – crucial confrontation techniques work well. I had used another method where I encouraged people having conflict to express it fully. https://www.midmanager.com/human-resource-team-conflict-resolution-ego-clash-crucial-confrontations-critical-conversations/

    But this is to be applied only after things are out of hands. If everyone follows your post, then there is no need to go to this extreme step.
    Great one, again!

  5. I remember my late Father who was a brilliant self employed electrician relating a story about his experience with following orders from an Army Sargeant on how to design and install an electrical installation in an Officer’s Mess. My Dad politely pointed out certain mistakes in the Sargeant’s proposal but the Sargeant wouldn’t have it and insisted he was right. My Dad said ‘Ok Sir I will follow your instructions’ but instead he carried out and completed the installation in the correct way as his training, experience, and standard demanded. Days later the Sargeant came back to inspect the completed works and turned to my Dad and said ‘ See how well it turned out! How right I was!’ My Dad had a great smile and replied ‘Thank you Sarg. I’m pleased you like the result!’ My Dad knew perfectly well that deep down the Sargeant had learnt his mistake and from then onwards the Sargeant always took my Dad’s advice on any electrical matters and works.

  6. Good insight! I have heard many people say that a company is only as good as its ability to work as a team. I can imagine that, in the scenario mentioned above, the pilot spent hours mastering his craft, and had a sense of assurance regarding the decisions that he made. His decisions were made based on his experience, and the work that he put in, to be able to operate an aircraft. And I know that what occurred on the runway must have come as a surprise to the pilot, and to everybody on board the aircraft.
    However, the undeniable truth is that it is possible that the accident could have been avoided had the pilot listened to the suggestions that his co-workers made. Unfortunately, people suffered death as a result of this. One important thing to note though, is that the pilot misheard a command from the control tower. That certainly contributed to the decisions that the pilot made. And, despite the unhappy story, there is a lot that can be learned from this story. It is good to know that this story has led to many pilots, and aircraft personnel rethinking the decisions they make.

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