When You Disagree With a Higher Manager’s Directive

by Glen Fahs on February 13, 2017

in Leadership

Leadership Development Center OCS instructors help train MSST Boston personnel.

Your thought: “Oh no, that will never work! And I’m not the only one who knows that. And my boss expects us to put this into action now. I bet I get the blame if it fails.”

Some top managers ask for your input and have good judgment, making these situations rare. Some are visionaries who don’t know what will work in practice. Some are dictators who see your disagreement as disloyalty. When you anticipate lots of problems implementing what the boss wants, no wonder you’re nervous.

It’s an awkward feeling when you have to tell others to do something that you believe is unwise. Step One is overcoming your initial fight-flight stress reaction and Step Two is thinking what matters to whom. Assuming your goals are to 1) be sincere, 2) be positive and 3) get everyone to do their best, the following ABC’s can help:

Anticipate: Think about what could go wrong and what could go right and the odds of each. Determine ways to overcome obstacles, get buy-in and make the change successful. Consider how employees or other stakeholders might resist and what they need to respond positively over time.

Before: If you see a high risk of problems, ask for your boss’s or other expert help to see the best path forward. If you usually are supportive and committed, sharing your concerns and alternative ways to make progress will be seen as trying to help. Be sure not to make the discussion competitive (a contest of wills) or to embarrass your boss publicly or privately. Private grumbles are often seen as more negative than you intend.

Communicate constructively: If you want support from employees, don’t ask for blind conformity. Explain why you are concerned and discuss issues. Resistance is normal, especially for those who lack vision and confidence, but if heard sympathetically, is commonly temporary. Stifling dissent rarely works while rational, supportive problem solving does. People need a chance to get accustomed to uncomfortable ideas and to figure out how to make them work.

The worst mistake insecure leads and managers make is to blame others. “The boss is clueless.” “Employees aren’t open to change.” “Our suppliers can’t be trusted.”

Blame, like pessimism, undermines collaboration. Realistic optimism may see failure as a possibility but only as a pothole in the road. Keeping good relationships up and down the hierarchy, between departments and with others whose support is valuable, is critical to long-term success.

Part of anyone’s job is making both their boss look good and their organization succeed. Even when there are major barriers to face, your best efforts to build unity will be remembered.

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