How can I be a better leader when there's adversity?
November 3, 2009 12:45 PM   Subscribe

How do you carry out, and encourage, instructions that you really, really disagree with?

I realized recently that one of the reasons why I was a mediocre supervisor at my last job was because I totally didn't believe in the way the higher ups were running things. (I wasn't the only one; there were lots of problems there.) For example, I would say that we needed a dedicated assistant to do administrative tasks, but the HUs would say, no, you all need to spread that work amongst yourselves, and it's your job as the supervisor to make it happen. Then, when people got aggravated and quit because the work wasn't challenging, HUs would yell at me for not encouraging people to stay. But the fact is, I couldn't do that because I completely agreed with them! They would complain and I could only reply, "yeah, it sucks, doesn't it, but the HUs won't give us any help." (I had the numbers to prove we needed administrative help, but HUs only reply was that I should get people to work faster, and then they'd have time for everything.)

Another example: I head a national committee on some guidelines on how to format some stuff, and everyone has decided that we need to add some guidelines that are, IMO, unnecessary and a time-sucker. I know, because I had to follow them informally for a while and I asked some end users what they thought, and they agreed that it was a waste of time. But still, all the national people voted to add them and so I not only had to write the formal guidelines but encourage my committee members to use them. I wound up being very neutral in my emails about the whole thing, but I didn't go around promoting it, which perhaps I should have since I was the leader.

A third example: I direct a church music group, and the new head priest has decided to put us in a new location that everyone hates. He also has placed limits on our repertoire, because he has definite ideas about how the church service should go, something that has never happened before, and all our members are outraged. I wanted to be a good leader and say, "there there, it will all be ok," but the fact is, I'm just as pissed too. (In our denomination, the head priest has the final say on these matters.) I think the priest expects me to sooth the group, though he hasn't explicitly said so.

The president of my old company told me, when I was butting heads with my supervisor, that "it was my job to carry out her instructions, regardless of whether you agree, and that's what makes a good leader." So my question is, how exactly do you do that?

This is not a question of "how can I learn to get along with higher-ups better?" If you're going to answer with "just learn to suck it up and get along and stop nitpicking" or "just figure out a way to agree with them," then please give thoughtful reasons as to why you think so. There must be examples of some head honcho at, say, Microsoft, who thinks that Gates's new idea is crap but he'll have to promote it anyway. How does that happen? Does it require lots of bullshitting, or acting? Or becoming a tyrant to those I'm trying to lead, which is the only thing that might have worked in the first example? Perhaps I'm not cut out to be a leader, but before I throw in the towel I'd like to see if I can work on this issue. Is there some Leadership 101 book that I should read? I'm kind of introverted and don't expect to run a company any time soon, but I'm smart and don't mind taking charge some of the time, and I would like to have a better answer than "yup this sucks" or "don't complain to me, I agree with you!"

Thanks! Sorry for being so long-winded.
posted by Melismata to Human Relations (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I think you need to find other areas where you can compensate for the things you cannot change. If work isn't challenging in one area, find a way to bring in other projects that are challenging. If you can't hire more people to do administrative tasks, find incentives to get the folks who aren't used to doing administrative tasks to get them done.

As long as you work for someone else, you're always going to be in the position to have to do some things you don't want to do. The only way I can think of to keep from beating your head against a wall sometimes is to find the things that do motivate you and work your plans into their plans.
posted by xingcat at 12:52 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The president of my old company told me, when I was butting heads with my supervisor, that "it was my job to carry out her instructions, regardless of whether you agree, and that's what makes a good leader." So my question is, how exactly do you do that?

I guess the key for me is that there are some decisions that I don't get to make, and once they are made I just accept it and move on. It sounds like you are getting upset about these decisions long after they have been made, and are spending a lot of time and energy trying (unsuccessfully) to change them. It might be more helpful to consider it a lost cause at that point and make the best of a bad situation.

An analogy I would make is that it's sort of like a football quarterback disagreeing with his coach. If the coach calls a pass play, and the QB thinks a run play would make more sense, the QB should still try his best to make the pass play work, even if he thinks it's the worst play in the playbook. And if he spends a lot of time talking about how much of an idiot the coach is, and is too angry about the play-calling to focus on making the pass, the failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy and the whole team loses.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:06 PM on November 3, 2009

I think you have to believe in the overall mission, even if you don't believe in the day-to-day tactical stuff.

What you describe (especially in your first example) is the situation I find myself in all the time. I get a lot of BS from my manager and above, and I've got to grit my teeth and make it happen. But when it comes to the big picture, I believe in what we do, and I think it's important, and I'm really glad to be a part of it. So I'll put up with the piddling crap when it comes down the pike.

I find that often stuff like that provides me with the opportunity to be a good leader-by-example. For instance, I'll tell my boss if I think that something's a bad idea- and I'll fight for what I think needs to be done (or how). But if I lose the fight, then I've got to get on board with the party line, so to speak. And that's sometimes a good thing for my employees to see happen. They know that I've got their back, and that I'll fight for stuff, but also that I'll do what I'm asked to do whether I agree with it or not. I expect them to tell me when they disagree with something, and to point out any mistakes I may be in the process of making; I likewise expect them to do what I ask when it comes down to it.

Bear in mind that you don't want to get to a point where you're hiding behind the higher-ups, and always making them the bad guys. Once a decision is made, and you're part of it, you have to own it. Your employees will eventually realize that all you ever say is, "Yeah, I don't like it either, but that's what the big bosses want so we have to do it." You can get away with that every now and then, but don't make it standard operating procedure.

It sounds to me like maybe you shouldn't be on the Committee for Formatting Guidelines if you have a philosophical problem with what they're doing. If your heart's not in it, you'll never be a good leader.
posted by Shohn at 1:07 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Carrying out the orders of those higher than you in the pecking order isn't leading, it's following. Finding ways to make those you are supervising excited to do something that isn't all that interesting? Representing the views of the people you are supervising in a powerful and persuasive way? That's what leading is.

So start figuring out ways to lead. For example, create a reward system for your subordinates at work that helps them tackle what needs to be done. Talk to your new priest, and explain the concerns of your group, and express to him that there is value to him if he works with you, even meets you half way. That value might be that he'll be more easily welcomed into the community if the music group holds him in high esteem, or that he doesn't have to spend as much time organizing it, or whatever you like.
posted by amelioration at 1:10 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Being a professional means being a team player and carrying out instructions that you might not agree with. You can rage against the instructions, but it won't get you very far. I agree with xingcat that you need to find other outlets where you CAN positively affect decisions that are made while carrying out the instructions/orders you're given in your current jobs.

If you do feel strongly enough about these policies or decisions that you disagree with that you're okay with losing your job, definitely fight against whatever it is - I'd say you almost have to do so if you have any sort of moral compass. If you don't feel that strongly, that's okay as well; just make sure that your bosses know of your disapproval (AND of a differing course of action) to provide you with some cover in case things do go south.
posted by squorch at 1:48 PM on November 3, 2009

The problem seems to be that you can't separate your feelings on an action with doing that action well, when that's the essence of professionalism: That you do well what you're supposed to do.

In the long run, a disagreement between what you're doing and how you feel about it is corrosive to your morale, and you should think hard about whether you want to be in the situation. But on a per task basis, you should be able to separate your feelings about something with how well you carry it out. One way to do this is to keep in mind that you might be the one in the wrong, that you're not seeing the whole picture, that there are reasons you aren't aware of. That's not saying "drink the koolaid", it's just maintaining a bit of scepticism about your own certainty that you're right--a bit of humility, if you will.
posted by fatbird at 2:18 PM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't to sound like a horrible cynical bastard here, but the corporate world is consistently full of nonsensical bullshit. I spend at least half my job on it.

If you're a slightly efficient person, you will always want to rage against this, but doing so will often highlight just how small a cog you are, and how big a machine the organisation - as it grinds you up like stale crackers. There are a wealth of cliches people console themselves with in these situations. My personal favourites:

Pick your battles.
Take your medicine.

I personally view bullshit as an integral part of my job. I've had jobs with no bullshit, and they were terribly paid. Every time I see that salary go in, I comfort myself that the wages of bullshit is sweet, sweet cash.

I'm not a passive sponge, however. If there's something I really care about - and could feasibly change - I will wage a campaign to do that. I don't always win said campaign, but trying helps. Let the record reflect, tearing down the ramparts and alienating people is usually not the way to affect change. Think of yourself like the UN: all soft power. You can disagree without 'butting heads'.
posted by smoke at 2:49 PM on November 3, 2009 [7 favorites]

I think part of it is also giving the leaders higher up that you regular, neutral feedback on how the implementation is going, both for things that you agree with and things that you don't. Part of the role of a leader is an assessor/messenger, not in a 'I told you it wouldn't work and here are three examples that it's not', but in a 'based on the goals that you have set, here's what's working, and here's an unexpected/not working. I have some ideas about how to address that'.

I also believe in assessing what's in my power, and what's not, and then letting the the things that are not unfold as they will. This is hard, because it seems so 'avoidable', but sometimes that's how lessons are learned. You can't get people to like song selections that they don't like. People who don't like them will probably leave. Once people start leaving, there might be more scrutiny on why they are leaving. That said, other, new people might start showing up, who like the music. But for people who are leaving, I'd have them share their reasons - for example, an anon exit survey - because if you want to change something, you need data. Also, Amelioration's ideas about controlling the tactics - the 'how' something gets done, and how to help others achieve whatever the guidelines are, etc., is helpful. That is in your power - part of what you can do. After you've done all you can do, then if people leave, well, that's up to them.

I know this is hard for some people - I've worked with people who flung themselves against the 'wrongness', in that they just kept telling people at every opportunity why X was not a good idea, and dwelling hard on the fact that it was inefficient, poorly conceived, wrong, etc. Don't be this person. It's amazing to me just how quickly other people start feeling that that person is a black cloud (even if they agree with them).

So in sum, I figure out what I can and cannot do, accept that if I'm 60% pleased with things, it's going pretty well, try to listen to people who are not happy, to to understand and explain why the higher ups decided on something - even if I don't agree, try to help the staff person achieve whatever the goal is, find other ways to make them happy, and don't get in their way if they want to leave.
posted by anitanita at 3:40 PM on November 3, 2009

Find the positives. The people making these decisions have their reasons - take the time to find them out and understand their position, even if it's not one you agree with. Then, when you have to enforce the decision among your people, you can do so from a fair perspective, e.g. "I know this sucks, but there really isn't the budget to get someone in to help, so let's do the best we can until things get better." "I don't like this location either but it's free and the neighbors don't mind the noise so at least we can really let go, eh?"

So you're sharing the reasons for the decision, and you're making compliance a "we" affair, not something you're imposing on them to the echo of draconian laughter.

It's worked pretty well for me.
posted by Billegible at 3:51 PM on November 3, 2009

Before I say this, I want you to know that I totally fail at leadership and couldn't tell you jack about how to succeed as A Leader. I don't like leaders anyway.

But frankly, I'd rather work for a guy who is all, "Yeah, I know the policy sucks, I tried to get them to change it, but it's not under my control, we're all just going to have to suck it up," than a guy who is falsely cheerleading to me something that obviously sucks donkey balls. You're not going to convince me that poop is diamonds if you put on Cheery Management Face, but I respect the guy who tried his best to get the policy changed and at least acknowledges to me privately that it isn't all that and a bag of chips. And it'll be a little easier for me to deal with the shitty policy if I know that the guy ahead of me isn't feeling 100% yay about it either.

That said, Cheery Management Face would probably help you get ahead with the higher-ups better than honesty to your subordinates would, so...yeah. I do suspect that tyranthood and false cheeriness are what get people ahead in management these days.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:52 PM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

You argue vehemently behind closed doors before the decision is made. After the decision is made, even if it is not what you wanted, you present a unified front. This is what we are going to do. This is why it is going to work (steal from your boss on this point, if you can't see any positives, which to be honest, would be unusual.) Acknowledge your people's concerns, and attempt to answer as if the decision was yours. Again, steal from your boss's arguments if necessary.

It is crucial, though, that you DO NOT UNDERMINE your boss with your people. You absolutely do not get in the habit of being the whiny apologizing "I know it's dumb, but the VP wants..." That approach presents yourself as powerless and ineffective, worthless at protecting your people. Why bother talking to you, you can't do anything.

It also becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. "Hey this is dumb, but the VP says we have to do this." How much enthusiasm and cooperation do you think you're going to get? You've just told your people you don't expect them to succeed, you'll understand if they don't.

You listen to people's concerns without promising anything, and talk to your boss about it later as kind of a "feedback/status" meeting periodically. If it's truly not working despite your best efforts, your boss should know that. Your boss should also know, though, that you're doing your best, not sabotaging it out of spite.

People like that start getting more pre-stupid-decision clout with their bosses with time, while surly pass-the-buck saboteurs don't.

It's very hard, yes. Sometimes the very rare drunken confession to a discreet co-worker after hours that you think the VP is a dumb shit can make you feel better and keep you from losing your soul. Keep it to a minimum, though, because it really does hurt you in the long run.
posted by ctmf at 7:00 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

That's not to say you have to be happy Management sell-out cheerleader. Just that the plan is what the plan is, we're going to do our best to do it.
posted by ctmf at 7:03 PM on November 3, 2009

Sorry, I know addressing answers to other answerers is kind of a faux pas, but I think this expands on my answer:

jenfullmoon - I get where you're coming from.

On the other hand, I like to think my people know I'm a good guy, and I'm looking out for them. It definitely make it no secret what I want to happen when decisions are being made. When I lose, though, I do not like to pass blame around and backbite my bosses and generally bitch with my co-workers and team members, for reasons I stated above. Plus: I just don't like to work in a bitch, bitch, bitch environment.

It isn't being Cheery Management Face, it's doing what I have to do with as positive an outlook as I can. It makes the time go by much more pleasantly, and sometimes I find that I can do it, and (ok, rarely) maybe even that the plan turned out to be better than mine for reasons my boss knew but I didn't.

Sometimes it feels like a video game - once you get good at doing it the easy way, the next level is the same thing, but with some unnecessary obstacle to make it more challenging. I'd rather work in a "lets give it a go" atmosphere than a "oh, everything sucks" one. I think people can get that without thinking you're a corporate stooge.
posted by ctmf at 7:40 PM on November 3, 2009

While I've never actually worked in a corporate setting, I've worked in several military or military-modeled organizations, which are the true homes of "do it because we say so" type orders. I've found myself in the middle of "these are the orders" v. "these are the realities" type situations more than once. In the first instance, I made the mistake of openly disparaging commands coming down the chain in front of the people I was leading. Military people (and likely corporate to a large degree) are trained to take cues from their leaders, and me introducing cynicism and distrust into the group lead to disaster. Since then, my path has been much closer to what's been suggested above: fight for a voice behind closed doors, acknowledge the realities to your people, and let them know that these goals will be accomplished regardless of how difficult they may be. Though it may not be true in your situation, I always presume that my higher-ups and I are working off of very different knowledge bases: I might understand the situation in my small corner of the world far better than I can convey to them, but they undoubtedly have access to information I'm not privy to. It's my job to derive tactics from strategy, and I rely on a level of autonomy for that. Remeber that you and your bosses likely have the same goals, and just do your part to achieve them.
posted by gam zeh yaavor at 10:54 PM on November 3, 2009

I try to remember that my job is to make my staff successful. It's my responsibility to ensure that the people on my team are top performers, well trained, well compensated and promotable (if they want that). That means they need to deliver the work - even the parts of the work that are challenging, boring or annoying. If I focus on helping my staff succeed in their careers, then it's easier for me to present ideas I don't love.

I'm a director over other managers. The policy that I have with those managers is that we discuss ideas as a management team first. Once the decision is made, I expect all of the managers to fully support it. We can debate it as a management team, but we speak in a unified way to our staff. Otherwise, it leaves the staff in a position where they are positioned to fail. Getting conflicting messages creates frustration and conflict.

You can complain to your peers. You can complain to your boss. You should never complain to your staff. When you complain to your staff, you are putting your management burden on their shoulders. If you can't get an admin, how is your direct report supposed to fix that? They can't.

It's not about parroting the company line. You can say, "I asked for an admin to support our team, but I was turned down due to budget constraints. Since we won't be getting an admin, how can we effectively divide this work?"
posted by 26.2 at 7:25 AM on November 4, 2009

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