Goodrich: At work, what if you disagree?
Sometimes there will be situations where we seriously disagree with organizational decisions. In many of these cases — dropping a project our group is working on, an unpopular firing, cutting budgets and/or programs — we may even think the decision hurts us and our team. What can we do here?
Our first inclination may be to go to our people and share the bad news.
"They're doing it to us again," we say, referring to the people upstairs. "And this time we are really upset." We may find it comforting to gather with sympathetic colleagues, but this is not a good place to be.
Think about our interaction with our boss and other administrators. Were we at some point involved in these meetings, and had some role in the decision? Even if we disagreed with it, we were aware of it, and probably signed off on it in some ways. We also have to acknowledge that decisions are made for a reason, and by people who have the power to make these decisions.
When we complain about decisions without taking any ownership, we are diminishing our role as a leader. We are really saying, "I'm just a messenger," and that we have no control over what happens upstairs. That hardly generates respect from people, whether they are above or below us.
It is hardly any better when we just pass along the bad news without comment. We call this "transparent management," since the manager takes no responsibility for decisions. It is simply, "They told me ... to tell you," and hardly inspires confidence. Indeed, this often contributes to problems or even failure down the road.
People are constantly looking for cues. If you don't think your department can be run or projects can be done with fewer resources or different people, what kind of message are you sending?
Of course, there are situations where we may need to push back, especially if a decision involves some kind of ethical or moral breach, which could seriously damage the organization and its reputation; or, if we have information that suggests the organization is in an untenable position where it cannot meet a contract or other obligation.
It is crucial that we share this information with our superiors, even as we continue to take responsibility for the decision with those who work for us. In other words: We should always challenge up and support down. This is the mantra of successful managers everywhere, and it is an important precept in many organizations.
If you need to support an unpopular decision, think about how to do it. First, take responsibility for the decision and the need to look forward and get things done. Devote your energy to making sure everyone has an understanding of the decision and that they will work with the new situation.
At the same time, you can continue to fight upward if you think it worthwhile. You have a lot more power than you think (more on this next column). But generally try to pick your battles. Don't waste time trying again and again to prove you are right and "they" are wrong. Be careful to respect those above you, just as you do your peers and colleagues. If you wish to gain confidence and save your energy, don't focus on being oppositional — be willing to let go if you have to, and live to fight another day.
Jim Goodrich is dean of the Pacific University College of Business.
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