Engineering Dissent: How to Disagree in a Professional Setting

By Joseph Lampinen

If you work as an engineer, at some point in your career, you will most likely encounter a situation where you respectfully disagree with a peer, supervisor, client, or other stakeholder. For instance, your department might want to invest in a specific program while you believe that a different program is the better option. Another example could be that a client wants to use a specific material in a product, but according to your calculations, the material does not provide the desired strength. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself in a dissenting position, it is critical to express your disagreement professionally yet effectively. To help you accomplish this, consider incorporating the following tips into how you communicate your dissent.

  • Always remain professional. No matter how strongly you feel about the matter, there is no room for an emotional response in a professional setting. Make sure to keep your tone neutral and your body language relaxed.
  • Understand that professional disagreement can be beneficial. Many of us were conditioned to avoid conflict and seek harmony in the workplace. Unfortunately, the “go along to get along” approach is not helpful to an engineering professional performing their duties on the job. Engineers are not paid to agree if they have reason to disagree. Your projects and products benefit from your  technically correct advise and decisions.
  • Base your argument on data. You are best advised to prepare your case and present it in a neutral manner that lets the facts and figures speak for themselves. You need to demonstrate the technical rationale of why a specific choice or solution is not the best option. For example, you could show numbers that demonstrate the total cost of ownership of a particular product your company wants to install and compare them to the data of another product you believe is more cost-effective. Or you might want to show a client the maintenance and reliability statistics on a particular machine they want installed in their factory.
  • Be an advocate for your idea. When you disagree about something, there’s bound to be some discussion as to which point of view is the correct one. It is advisable to be as unemotional as possible when you present your argument while still advocating for your idea.
  • Be timely. Do not wait too long to voice your dissent. Especially if others are overlooking a fault or some other issue, moving forward could have dire consequences. For example, if a material from a specific supplier does not provide the desired purity, it could have an adverse impact on precisely those qualities for which the material is needed. And particularly in this case, you want to communicate your thoughts before an entire production run becomes tainted by an inferior material.

All things considered, professional dissent in engineering is about counter-persuasion; i.e. you need to use your powers of persuasion to counteract an action or decision you believe will have an adverse consequence. When you know what the other party is trying to accomplish and understand what the issue is with their method, you can either point out the issue, present an alternative solution, or both.