In high-risk military situations, there's no time for deliberation. You have to trust the people around you to process information and make decisions quickly, and you must execute without question.
Several years ago, I was in this kind of situation. A senior officer ordered me to put my soldiers in harm's way; I braved the consequences and respectfully offered a safer, equally effective course of action. I got an earful that day. However, he accepted my recommendation, and the mission was accomplished without exposing people to unnecessary risk.
Employees in the modern workplace face similar dilemmas. In some organizations, management expects employees to simply follow orders, making it uncomfortable (and costly) to disagree.
Know When to Speak Up
Complying with requests you don't agree with can result in a number of consequences, from feelings of resentment to prison time.
It's important to consider which situations you can live with and which ones aren't worth the risk. Here are four scenarios in which you should feel comfortable disagreeing:
- The request is clearly unethical and/or illegal. Standing up for what's right is always worthwhile, even if you face negative consequences in the short term. If you go along, you'll be responsible for the legal and emotional ramifications - it may cost you your reputation or career or harm someone else. From Enron to Bernie Madoff, there are plenty of names who failed to step up and paid the price.
- The situation puts people at risk. Beyond ethical dilemmas, people are asked to cut corners or put people's health and welfare at risk. This pressure can be made explicit or manifest subtly, pushing people to behave recklessly.
- The situation directly conflicts with your personal values. It can be especially uncomfortable to stand up for your personal convictions. If you don't, you'll create an uncomfortable work environment for yourself and be forced to consciously behave in an inauthentic way. Living with your decision can be debilitating and spur animosity toward your job and employer.
- You work in an environment that values debate and pushback. Organizational cultures that value diversity and discussion believe that the best ideas come to light only when team members can speak openly. This can be seen in Google's weekly free-for-all staff meeting or in academic settings, where the underlying belief is that the best ideas and theories can withstand rigorous debate.
My first post-college job involved inspecting global petroleum shipments coming into New York Harbor. This involved irregular schedules, long hours, and an inherently dangerous work environment. The job also required driving from facility to facility. After falling asleep at the wheel for the third time from sheer exhaustion - and talking to my supervisor about it, with no change - I quit.
Push Back Without Putting Yourself at Risk
Each scenario requires a different approach to balance your beliefs with your company's request for your cooperation. Here's a four-step process to move forward in a tough spot:
1. Understand the culture. How you approach dissent depends on the unwritten code of behavior in your workplace. It's important to assess the way people communicate with one another; the wrong approach may create unnecessary friction.
For example, if your workplace welcomes feedback, pushing back is not only acceptable - it's expected. Environments with more rigid structures will demand that you move your concerns up the proper channels to avoid stepping on anyone's toes.
2. Ask for clarification. If you have an ethical concern, a personal values dilemma, or a disagreement, you can sometimes painlessly resolve the situation by asking, "So what you're asking me to do is...?" Verifying the request will clarify what's being asked. This will also send the message that it isn't sitting well with you and give the higher-up a chance to reconsider.
3. Be honest. If you're still conflicted after taking these steps, it's time to let your supervisor know that you're not comfortable complying. Schedule a private meeting to talk about your concerns, and don't approach it in a confrontational way.
Offer an alternate solution that works in the best interests of both you and your organization. You can also ask management for a second option. This dialogue ensures that you're working together toward a resolution.
4. Take the concern up the line or move on. When your superior still expects you to carry out the task - whether it's completing a financial transaction or adopting a sleep-debilitating schedule - you have a tough decision to make. For more severe unethical or illegal behaviors, you should bring the problem to the next level of seniority.
How you do this depends on your organization's structure, but it might mean taking your concerns to your supervisor's superior or human resources. In extreme cases, you may need to leave the work environment before it negatively impacts your career or reputation.
True leaders live by their sense of right and wrong. This can put you at odds with your boss, your organization, or your teammates. If you disagree with a co-worker, present your case professionally to help him see it your way - and take a dismissive response as a sign that it's time to move on to a company that will.