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Nov 9, 2009

Ask a Manager: Staying on Message

Guest Lecturer, Dick Whitman, Manager in Residence

Dear Manager,
How do you handle having to stay "on message" when you don't agree with upper management?

This is often a challenge to me, particularly because my personal style is so rooted in building trust and loyalty with the team. Still, I need to maintain the balance of effective leadership along these lines while staying loyal to my own leaders. It would be hypocritical of me to expect a kind of loyalty from my employees that I am unwilling to give to the people to whom I report.

I would like to tell you that I always agree with what my leaders tell me. But then, I would be insulting your intelligence, and that breaks a big rule with me. I actually have a few driving rules that I try my best to honor:
  • Never lie to the team
  • Never insult their intelligence
  • Be as open and candid as possible
  • Never break a confidence
  • Do not throw company management under the bus

Obviously, the very nature of this dilemma can make it difficult to follow all of the above rules at once. The last one above is perhaps the hardest to honor. By not throwing my management under the bus, I don’t just mean that I avoid bashing them. That is clearly unprofessional. What is more important to me is that I try not to tell my team anything along the lines of: “I don’t agree with this, but they are making me do it, so I am making you do it.” That compromises my own integrity, and it doesn’t help the company to be unified in its objectives.

So how do I deal with it then? Well, provided I am working in an environment in which I trust the leadership overall, I feel it is my duty to fight for my beliefs, and for the best interests of my team and my clients. I do my best to make my case strongly and effectively, but most of all professionally and respectfully. I feel that if I am working in an environment where I am able to question authority, I can make a real contribution. I expect nothing less from my team in dealing with me. The key to this is to know when the discussion is over, and to understand when it is time to carry out the directive from the boss. I don’t always agree with it, but I understand that I am not always right.

So when this happens, and my objections are overruled, it is my job to go out there and get the team to execute. The most effective method I have found to accomplish this is to try and get a good understanding of the drivers behind the decisions that have been made. If I don’t agree with the proposed solution, I can at least gain some insight into the problems that the company is trying to solve. In almost all cases, I am well aware of these. Once I can get my arms around the problem, it is easier for me to go back to the team and communicate the impact of the current state. From there, I can communicate the plan to address the business needs, followed by communication that starts with, “so this is what we are doing about it.”

From there I can listen to my team’s feedback and validate any concerns, while staying on message with the notion that the current plan is what we need to support. In these situations, I am often able to commit to staying close to the situation, to monitor the risks as we go, and to try again with my management if the plan’s execution hits a bad turn. I commit to this, and I do my best to follow through in every way possible when a course correction is warranted.

The above approach has served me well overall. Luckily, I have had only a few cases where I was so far apart from the leadership of my company that I found myself unable to justify the direction. Staying on message under these circumstances without breaking my own rules caused me a great deal of heartburn. In both cases that come to mind, I was dealing with a pervasive disconnect between my own values and those of my company’s management. After trying to reconcile this and failing, I decided that I was not well-matched to the company and so I moved on. As a bottle of steak sauce once told me: “Yeah. It’s that important.”

Ask a Manager: Have a workplace dilemma? Want to understand what goes on in the mind of a manager? Post your questions in the comments.

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