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Say NO to your manager!

What a hard thing to do!
Federico Maffini

Global Leader | Program Management | Data & Analysis, AWS

Yet, fostering a culture where it is OK to disagree with your leaders, stakeholders, and/or peers is what has made the most successful companies out there so.. successful.

If you are a manager, you have a unique opportunity to encourage a culture of openness and transparency and your team will look to you for guidance. If you aren't, you can still collaborate with your peers and stakeholders to facilitate a more comfortable environment for disagreement.

Here's some of the things I've observed and learned throughout the years, and some practical tips I've shared with those who asked for my guidance.

The Value of Sparring

Productive conflict, or 'sparring', is essential to team growth. It challenges the status quo, opens the door to innovative ideas, and promotes a learning culture. This isn't about creating discord; it's about encouraging individuals to voice differing perspectives and debate their merits in a respectful, constructive manner.

  1. Set Clear Expectations: Let your team know that differing opinions are not just welcome, but encouraged. Provide clear guidelines for respectful debate, emphasizing that discussions should focus on the issue, not the person.
  2. Facilitate Constructive Debates: Play an active role in directing team discussions. Make sure every voice is heard and that discussions remain constructive and focused on the issue at hand.
  3. Turn Sparring into Learning Opportunities: After a debate, make time to debrief. Highlight the good points made, where the team landed, and the lessons learned. This will show your team that sparring is a valuable process.

Embracing Failure

Often, the reason why people hold back sharing their ideas and inputs is rooted deeper down. Self-consciousness, the fear of being wrong, the worry of being dismissed: this is what impedes us from speaking up. But failure isn't a setback - it's a stepping stone. The philosophy of "failing fast" should encourage individuals to take risks, quickly learn from mistakes, and pivot accordingly. As a manager or IC thought leader in your organization, make sure to:

  1. Promote a Safe-to-Fail Environment: Encourage risk-taking by emphasizing that failure is a natural part of growth and innovation.
  2. Celebrate Learning, Not Just Success: Acknowledge and celebrate the lessons learned from failure. This reinforces that making mistakes is acceptable, as long as we learn from them.
  3. Encourage Reflection: Cultivate a culture of reflection. After a setback, encourage your team (whether your directs or closest stakeholders) to share what went wrong, what they learned, and how they plan to apply these lessons in the future.

The Role of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence plays a critical role in creating a culture of openness, transparency, and productive conflict. Recognizing and managing your own emotions, and understanding and influencing the emotions of others are essential skills in the workplace, particularly in high-stress situations.

  1. Recognize Emotions: Encourage your team to be more self-aware, recognizing their emotions and the impact they have on their behavior and decisions.
  2. Practice Empathy: Teach your team to develop empathy towards their peers. Understanding where others are coming from will promote more respectful and productive conversations.
  3. Manage Reactions: Encourage your team to manage their emotional reactions effectively, especially during intense discussions. Keeping cool heads will help maintain a productive atmosphere.

Power of Active Listening

Active listening is key to fostering a culture where disagreement is welcome. It involves fully focusing, understanding, responding, and then remembering what is being said.

  1. Teach Active Listening: Organize workshops or training sessions to improve active listening skills within your team.
  2. Show Appreciation for Active Listening: Regularly acknowledge and appreciate team members who demonstrate good active listening skills. This will motivate others to do the same.
  3. Implement Active Listening Practices: Introduce practices that promote active listening, such as 'reflecting back' or 'paraphrasing' what others have said during discussions to ensure understanding.

The Power of Non-Verbal Communication

While the spoken word is vital, non-verbal communication can often convey even more information.

  1. Promote Understanding of Non-Verbal Cues: Encourage your team to be aware of their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice during discussions. These non-verbal cues can often signal more than words.
  2. Conduct Training: Organize workshops or training sessions to understand and improve non-verbal communication within your team.
  3. Lead by Example: Show your team how to use positive non-verbal cues by leading with your own example.

Other Practical Considerations

If saying "No" were that easy, I wouldn't have had to coach people through it nor would I be sharing my insights here. Here's a few more inputs to help you get started:

Don't forget to:

  • Promote Inclusivity: Ensure all voices are heard, not just the loudest. Create opportunities for everyone to contribute their ideas and opinions.
  • Lead by Example: As a manager, your actions set the tone for your team. Demonstrate that it's acceptable to express a divergent opinion by doing so yourself when necessary.
  • Demonstrate Respect: Show your team that their opinions are valued and respected. If someone disagrees with you, listen to them and appreciate their willingness to share their point of view.

Practical Tips:

  • Train Your Team: Offer trainings (here) on how to express dissent respectfully and constructively. Equip your team with the skills necessary to effectively communicate their viewpoints.
  • Feedback Mechanisms: Establish feedback mechanisms that allow team members to anonymously express their thoughts if they prefer. This can be particularly helpful in the early stages of nurturing this culture.
  • Draw the Line: As a manager, there will be times when you need to make the final decision, especially when the team is deadlocked or the debate is not leading to a resolution. Be sure to explain your decision clearly and reassure your team that their input was appreciated.


As leaders, managers, or peers, we have an opportunity - and a responsibility - to cultivate a working culture where dissent is viewed not as a threat, but as a catalyst for growth. In such a culture, it's okay to say "No," to spar, to fail quickly, and to learn even faster.

This culture demands a shift from focusing solely on outcomes to embracing the process of learning, innovation, and continuous improvement. In this journey, we will encounter disagreement, friction, and failure but within these experiences lie our greatest opportunities for growth.

Need more support to change the culture within your team? Reach out!

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