In my last post on management I talked about a Manager Tools series, and summarized it as:
The message in these podcasts is: it is your responsibility as a manager to support the company’s decisions. Not just to execute on them, but to support them, to communicate that support, and if you disagree then you must hide that disagreement in the service of the company. You can disagree up — though even that is fraught with danger — but you can’t disagree down. You must hold yourself apart from your team, putting a wall between you and your team. To your team you are the company, not a peer.
I’m not endorsing that approach, but I’m also not sure they are wrong. In the comments on the post and on Hacker News that idea got a lot of pushback, including from people who followed up and listened to the original podcasts. Listening to those podcasts made me feel very uncomfortable, and I wrote that post immediately after listening to the podcasts.
I shared a particular instance where I felt I had to apply this principle. But thinking about this more, and talking about it with my reports, I have a better feeling for how I want to approach this question.
I think the “always be honest” approach that was widely advocated is terribly simplistic. Honesty doesn’t mean saying “hi, how are you doing? That shirt is incredibly ugly.” You might have thoughts, but it isn’t dishonest to hold your tongue. Each of us already consider what we say and how we say it. As a manager, and in a position of leadership, your words have greater impact. It is wise to put in a bit more consideration, especially around certain topics.
That said, I don’t think I need to agree with every choice that the company makes. I don’t have to offer up disagreement, but I do get asked, and should answer honestly. It is my responsibility to help my reports engage positively with the larger institution. That’s a constant: even if everything is totally fucked up, it’s still the right thing to engage positively with circumstances. Otherwise you should leave. But that’s ultimatum-talk, most of the impact is in the margins: engaging more positively in all your actions.
In my position I can sabotage this engagement. What I might see as simple “disagreement” has the potential to undermine whatever good may come out of a decision, and so I have to be careful. For instance, it’s easy in disagreement to telegraph (even unintentionally) a belief that a policy should be ignored, or that feet-dragging is politically advantageous for the team, or that the team should sandbag.
So what if something happens that I really disagree with? Until I’ve thought it through I should probably keep my mouth shut. This requires a degree of humility (first, heal thyself). I have to figure out how I can engage positively with these new circumstances. This might be a lonely exercise, sandwiched above by a decision I disagree with and below by reports I must withhold myself from. But I have to work through this – people treat opinions as though they are immutable, as though it is dishonest or even duplicitous if you do not stick with your first reaction. There is an arrogance in this (of course in management you also have to cultivate sufficient arrogance to tell people what to do). And so it is a real challenge to find the humility to genuinely change your mind about something, or change your perspective. But I don’t think a manager has to completely align themselves with company decisions, they don’t have to paste a smile on and say “everything is great!” The manager has to do good work in a new situation, and that means helping your reports do good work. Pasted on smiles are superfluous.
This is something that's a big deal for me to tell any new manager I have, in that I don't believe that every decision that comes down to us from high is 100% of the time a good decision--I'm too cynical for that, I suppose. I fully accept that sometimes we just have to jump, when it's not something worth expending political capital and fighting over, that's just how things go, but I want to have trust within our own team so that in our private 1:1s and such, we can acknowledge that we don't think it's a good idea without necessarily leading to sandbagging.
But I've been told that that's not always effective for motivating a team, so it's a preference, that brutal honesty makes me *more* likely to work hard even if I disagree (because at least there's the hope that next time we won't make this same mistake, if at least some people acknowledge it was a bad idea). Otherwise if everything is always sold to us as the Next Best Thing, I'll end up believing none of it at all.