Leading Employees Who Don’t See Things Your Way | Handling Disagreement

Leadership is no cakewalk. It takes guts, resilience, clear-headedness, and sensitivity. Okay, it takes lots more too. But the real challenge for leaders is their employees. 

Each one has their own set of expectations. They want their leader to create a work environment that suits them by solving problems, removing obstacles, resolving conflicts, ensuring fairness, and minimizing disruptions. 

The harsh reality is: Every employee can’t have exactly what s/he wants. 

Disagreement triggers 

Like it or not, business needs trump employee wants. That can be hard to swallow if employees don’t understand the big picture their leaders see.  After all, a leader’s first responsibility is to keep the business going so we can keep our jobs. 

Savvy leaders anticipate decisions that trigger employee disagreement and are quick to defuse it. 

There are all kinds of causes for those disagreements: 

  • Someone else was promoted and they don’t understand why.
  • A work process was changed without their input.
  • Work was outsourced, threatening their job security. 

Even though, you, as the leader, didn’t necessarily create these situations, you are expected to own them. Remember: you are the company’s agent even while you’re an employee in your own right. (Hey, no one said this role was easy!) 

Leaders need to identify signs of employee disagreement before they become flashpoints by being alert to: 

  • Non-verbals: No eye contact, silence, avoidance, negative body language
  • Verbal barbs: “I don’t think that’s fair” or “That’s not my job”
  • Actions: Work slow-downs, huddled groups venting, non-compliance 

Resistance to new policies/processes, reorganizations, or increased performance expectations notoriously starts small and then takes on a life of its own. 

It’s tempting to ignore what might appear to be trivial employee disagreements. But they provide value insights that every leader needs to take seriously and reposition. 

When employees don’t see things your way, they act in either an overt or covert way. Some employees will be upfront and open about their disagreements; others will lie low and stoke the disenchantment of others. The leader needs to understand the root cause of these disagreements and tackle them head on. 

Defusing pushback 

Leaders tend to look at disagreements as pushback against their authority, which often isn’t the case. Too often, they are tempted to push back harder, using their organizational clout to make sure employees keep doing things “their” way. That only works for a short while and often makes matters worse.  

There’s real risk in failing to address employee disagreements like: 

  • Declining morale and motivation
  • Reduction in productivity and quality
  • Inability to enact change successfully 

Leaders of all stripes need to moderate employee disagreements, resolve legitimate issues, build understanding, and keep lines of communication open. 

When employees disagree, they want to be heard. Sometimes this is all they need, an opportunity to go on record with their point of view. Other times, it’s the starting point for ongoing dialogue, helping the employee and the leader to resolve the disagreement. 

Here are basic steps for conversations with employees who don’t see things the leader’s way: 

  • Understand the employee’s issue and its source
  • Ask what the employee wants changed
  • Be clear about your position and what you are able to give (if anything)
  • Be prepared to explain your/the company’s rationale in words the employee will understand
  • Confront the employee about their resistance (if any), its impacts and consequences
  • Summarize what’s been discussed and state the next steps each will take 

The leader is not always right and the employee wrong. Effective leaders get important insights when employees disagree. 

Take the high road 

Disagreements are important for business growth; they constitute feedback. It’s the way disagreements are handled that separates great leaders from mediocre ones. 

Opening yourself to employee viewpoints and inviting them is key. Not every point of employee disagreement is valid or doable, but each should be heard and considered. 

Photo from stuant63 via Flickr