What To Do When You Disagree with a Leadership Decision
Updated: Feb 18
You’ve probably experienced it…
A leader (or leaders) somewhere in the hierarchy above you makes a decision that you think is the most ridiculous thing you could imagine. The voice in your head sounds a little like...
"How could they run the organization like this? Surely, we need new leadership!! They have no idea what they’re doing!!"
This is the experience of many people in most organizations at least some of the time.
The problem is…
Every time this happens, it erodes employee trust in leadership and make employees feel increasingly helpless, disenfranchised, and cynical. When these feelings reach a tipping point, the employee checks out and starts looking at job boards rather than doing the job he or she is paid to do.
So what can we do about this problem?
Is it realistic to simply require leaders to stop making decisions we think are ridiculous? I doubt it. We can teach leaders to be better leaders (and we should), but they will always make decisions from time to time that we think are not the best – even ridiculous!
No, the answer cannot be to insist that leaders never make decisions we disagree with. A better answer is that we must learn how to follow those leadership decisions without becoming overly frustrated or cynical.
But how do we do that?
I always like to be as practical as I can be with the skills I recommend, because real people need to implement these skills in real settings. So, I want to offer a checklist that followers can work through when they must process a decision with which they disagree.
By the way, I am assuming that you (as the employee) have already respectfully expressed your concern about the decision. (Note: there are a lot of ideas out there about how to disagree with a leader, but that’s not what I’m addressing in this article). Or, perhaps the decision was made far enough up the food chain that you really don’t have access to the decision makers. At any rate, the decision is final and you need to somehow live with it. So, what do you do now? How do you avoid muttering “idiot” under your breath as you search the job boards while your blood pressure surges?
My recommendation goes like this…
If a leader makes a decision that you disagree with, consider that this might be the result of one of three possibilities…
POSSIBILITY #1: You may have a bad attitude or a blind spot
I know you’re thinking that I’m turning the tables on you and excusing a bad leader. But that’s not at all my point. The fact is that we all possess the ability to have a bad attitude. We expect leaders to self-reflect (and they should), but we as followers must be willing to do the same. My own research has shown that healthy followers have a willingness to self-reflect. For example, we may have an emotional wound or character flaw that creates unrealistic expectations of leaders, causes an exaggerated suspicion of authority, or inclines us to always assume we can do something better. If you do some self-reflection and realize that you need to deal with your attitude or blind spots, then start by giving yourself a break. Beating yourself up doesn’t help. We all have flaws to work on and we are all works in progress. So, take a deep breath, acknowledge your flaw, and make a decision to work on it.
But let’s assume that you’ve taken an honest inventory of your own heart and you conclude (at least on this occasion) that you don’t have a bad attitude – you just strongly disagree with the decision. If this is the case, there are still a couple of other possibilities to consider…
POSSIBILITY #2: You might not have sufficient information
It is possible that if you had the same professional and life experience, and access to the same information or perspective the leaders had, you might just have made the same decision the leaders made. I remember having to fire someone once who was beloved by the other people on staff. Nobody else knew (except me and few other top leaders) that this person had been involved in something that seriously violated the policies of the organization. Yet, publicizing the reasons for firing this person might have created undue hardship on this person’s family, which we did not want to do. So, we let the person go, offered no details about why, and endured the criticism of many in the organization who accused us of being authoritarian, unfair, foolish for letting one of the best go, etc. The point is, often there is more to a decision than is readily apparent. We should allow for that possibility.
But let’s assume that somehow you have all the same information, experience, and perspective as the leaders who made the decision, and you still disagree with it. Well, there is at least one remaining possibility…
POSSIBILITY #3: The leader(s) might have made a bad decision
That’s right – leaders are fallible and certainly capable of making bad decisions (as hard as it is to believe!). It is possible that the bad decision was a result of pride, ego, or inexperience. But it is also possible that even the most experienced and self-aware leaders would have struggled to choose between several undesirable alternatives. Anyone, who has held a position of significant responsibility knows that easy and obvious leadership decisions are few and far between. More commonly, we must choose between options that fall into the categories of really crappy, slightly less crappy, and only moderately crappy. If we’re honest and fair about this, we can show a little grace to the leaders and admit that it would be immodest for us to assume that we would have made a better decision than the leaders did. There is no guarantee that we would have a perfect decision making record if we were in that position of authority. Really being able to acknowledge this can help us accept that sometimes bad decisions will be made. If the decision turns out to be a bad one, we should be prepared to do our part to respond constructively, knowing that bad decisions will always be part of any organization run by people (which is all organizations of course).
As I wrap up, let me qualify that if you work through these possibilities and still truly believe that your leaders are corrupt or lack reasonable accountability structures, then you really should leave the organization. Whether your conclusions are correct or not doesn’t matter. You believe them, so it’s going to be hard to function well in that environment. But I’m not talking about such extreme cases here. Rather, I’m trying to provide a practical tool to help you in a typical scenario that finds all of us on occasion.
So, next time a decision is made that you disagree with, express your concerns respectfully if you can. But if the decision stands, try walking through the three possibilities I suggested above. Hopefully, you’ll avoid the temptation to cynicism, (which just poisons your own heart and everyone around you), and you’ll be able to maintain your joy as you engage in your work.
(One more thing – if you are a leader, you might find it difficult to recommend this thought exercise to those who work for you. As practical and helpful as I think it will be for them, it will likely be seen as self-serving coming from you. It may be better to have a third party, such as someone from human resources or an outside consultant share it with your employees.)
Founder and President, Remedium Solutions LLC