For 30 years I worked as head of an office for a Catholic Diocese. Many of my co-workers marveled that I had such good access and got along so well with the bishops who employed me.
One of the reasons is that I really liked all three of the ones I worked for, despite the major differences in their personalities and leadership styles.
But another reason was that I occasionally disagreed with them – and did so in such a way that they thought I added value to their leadership responsibilities rather than challenging their authority. After a few such instances, they often asked my opinion before I even had a chance to offer it.
Of course, I never forgot that it was their place to make final decisions. But I also never forgot that it was my role to add value by offering a perspective they might not be able to get anywhere else.
To their lasting credit, they came to value that perspective and even to seek it out.
Case in point: when my father died, our diocesan bishop called my mother to tell her that he would say my father’s funeral Mass. I know he did it at least as much out of respect for my dad, who had been a parishioner of his, as offering a gesture of regard for me.
His remarkable homily was the topic of discussion after the funeral – at one of my father’s favorite local watering holes. Then the bar’s phone rang. It was someone from the Chancery saying she had tracked me down because the bishop wanted to meet with me – immediately. It was hard for us to hear each other over all the clatter in the crowded barroom. When I finally made out what she was saying, I agreed to come but I told her that I would need a ride -- a round trip one that would take me back to the bar. She agreed and picked me up in less than five minutes.
When we arrived at the Chancery, the bishop apologized for interrupting dad’s belated Irish wake, but explained that he wanted my opinion on a matter that couldn’t wait. He assured me that it would only take a few minutes, then handed me a letter to read and asked me to respond to it. It took me only a few minutes to do as he wished. He thanked me and told his assistant to drive me back to the family gathering.
On the way back I reflected on the odd circumstances of his request and realized I was more flattered than bothered by the interruption.
That incident came back to me as I read a story in Harvard Business Review by Amy Gallo about how to start the conversation when you disagree with your superior – not just to set the record straight, but in a sincere and heartfelt effort to contribute to the organization’s welfare.
In my experience, her article is outstanding. It covers all the bases and discusses the many nuances of asymmetrical communication when it’s important to discuss differences. If you ever have -- or think you might have -- those moments when you need to bring your disagreements to your boss, Gallo’s brief article will be well worth your time.