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When it pays to make waves

Pick your battles and win them

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in Workplace Communication

“I’m paid to think and give well-reasoned opinions. If I don’t, I’ll just fizzle away.”

That’s how a reader describes her job as a rising manager at a banking firm. Like most career advancers, she’s figured out a way to speak out without making enemies.

There’s a fine line between habitually disagreeing with what you hear and selectively asserting yourself with the goal of helping your company thrive. It depends on when you decide to challenge the consensus and how you express yourself.

Here are some techniques to dispute what you hear and present an alternative solution:

Avoid right-wrong labels. Frame your remarks so that in order for you to be right, others aren’t necessarily wrong. Use diplomatic phrases, such as, “Here’s another consideration...” or, “Let’s not forget what I think is an easy point to ignore...” rather than, “I think that analysis is all wrong...” or, “We’re failing to think this through.”

Choose visible battles. Only speak out if the situation meets these two prerequisites.

First, the issue must resonate deeply with top executives at your company and they should track it regularly. One reward of disagreeing with the prevailing wisdom is that you’ll garner the attention of higher-ups; if they don’t care in the first place, there’s less to gain.

Second, only dispute what you hear if you can propose a specific action plan that’s doable. Finger-pointing won’t help unless you can outline a better idea and a timetable for implementation.

Put it in writing. Compose a memo that summarizes your views. Don’t just rely on making an impassioned speech at a staff meeting and then basking in the glory of your eloquent words. Always follow up any verbal presentation with a written game plan that clearly indicates what you think needs to happen.

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