Supervisors sometimes have to uphold policies or give directions with which they do not entirely agree. In the past couple of weeks, I have had conversations about just this topic with three people who have faced this challenge in three distinct contexts:
- A commander in a metropolitan law enforcement agency. He supervises sergeants, who supervise first-line officers. He seeks to empower his sergeants to give direction clearly and unequivocally.
- A new lieutenant in a fire department. He is responsible for upholding standards that he sometimes finds arbitrary or misguided.
- An engagement manager in a public accounting firm. She finds some of her firm’s programs to be “just plain silly,” and she struggles to implement them with her team members.
For the purpose of these discussions, we focused on directives that were legally and ethically acceptable. That didn’t make them right, in the opinions of some supervisors. Nothing I learned from these conversations will make it easy or comfortable to give direction with which we do not fully agree, but in every conversation we found some insights that might prove helpful.
When we find ourselves in this situation, one guiding principle must be our duty to our employer, and to the mission we are employed to pursue. “We need to uphold the chain of command because it saves lives,” said the police commander. Even when lives aren’t at stake, having line supervisors picking and choosing among policies and directives can cripple an organization. Sometimes we follow direction because doing so is important in and of itself.
Allow me to be clear: I am not saying that we have an absolute duty to obey. Ethically, we are agents responsible for taking action, and not just subjects being acted upon. Using that agency responsibly is an important ethical duty in its own right. As leaders, we are responsible for participating in management decision-making to the extent available to us in our roles. We ought to develop an informed, thoughtful point of view and we ought to assert that point of view in an effort to achieve the best overall outcome. Once a decision is made, we have a responsibility to execute based on that decision. This distinctive challenge occurs at the intersection between leadership and followership. We need to cultivate both capacities, and to use each appropriately.
We also have responsibilities to employees, who ought to be able to expect reasonably consistent standards across units and teams. “When I was a staff accountant, what was expected of me depended on who was my manager. It wasn’t really fair,” said the CPA, “and it led to all kinds of unproductivity.” For her, a desire for fairness and consistency across teams makes it easier to apply directives evenly, even when she disagrees with the particulars.
Sometimes, a little humility helps. We don’t always have all the data available to other decision-makers, and we can’t always be certain how things will work out. I can recall many instances where an initiative that I considered foolish actually achieved surprisingly positive outcomes. In fact, if we don’t think it is reasonable to extend the benefit of the doubt to senior leadership, it may be reasonable to wonder if we are in the right organization, or in the right role.
By the same token, a sense of perspective is important, too. “I’m in this career for the long haul,” observed the fire lieutenant. “If I get wound up about every decision, I’ll lose my mind, and so will my crew. Sometimes my job is to help people get over stuff.” He’s absolutely right. Very often, we can be most effective as leaders when we listen to our team members and hear their objections or concerns, even as we uphold the policy or directive in question.
Finally, let us acknowledge the temptation to bad-mouth some directives, handing down an order like a stinky fish, at arm’s length. Avoid this temptation. Doing so can undermine our credibility with our team members, and with our supervisors. It is generally far better to participate in decision-making to the extent that is available to us, and then to implement legitimate, ethically sound directives faithfully even when we disagree with them. If this happens too often, then it is time to consider whether we are leading and following in the right place.
Up next week: Where Do You Stand?