alacrity in action
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Every now and then my twitter stream comes up with an interesting statement or question that sparks some reflection. The latest one came from Paweł:

Should a senior manager veto decision of one of their team leads if they don't agree with it? Or should they do nothing and see results?
Pawel Brodzinski

I’m going to treat is slightly broader, speaking of a team rather then just a team lead.

This is not only an interesting question but also one which, I bet, often gets asked, especially as teams gain autonomy in organisations. Let’s leave out, for the time being, the more fundamental issue, whether we need managers at all, and Bob has some tasty thoughts about this.

Let’s consider the two possible solutions to this conundrum.

Veto the decision.

This is most likely the default answer in traditional, command and control organisations. When seniority and position in the hierarchy is confused with experience and knowledge senior managers fell obliged to make their stamp and protect their subordinates from doing the wrong thing. I hope this approach immediately raises your concern, at least a bit. First of all, the higher up you are in the chain-of-command the more removed you usually become from where the real work is done and your understanding of the context and specific challenges diminishes. More importantly however, to blindly veto your team’s decision is a stark demonstration that you don’t trust their judgment or their knowledge. It undermines their autonomy (assuming they had some to begin with) and demotivates them from taking responsibility for their own actions in the future.

Let the team fail.

If you care about your team accepting responsibility, about their autonomy and motivation you may think that the best outcome then is to do nothing and wait for the result. After all, you might accept that you are wrong in your opinion or you may want to give the team an opportunity to learn and fail. The team will continue with their own, independent decisions towards some outcome. They may succeed, or they may fail. If the latter outcome realises don’t be tempted to go and say “well, I always knew this was a bad idea but I wanted you to learn for yourselves”. Regardless, by not sharing your concerns you are withholding information from the team which can potentially harm the team and thus the organisation.

There is a third way.

When Paweł initially asked this question my immediate reaction was that it is irresponsible to do either. It felt very similar to the problem of delegation. “To delegate or not” appears to be a puzzle for many managers. Jurgen gives a good solution to this one reminding us that there are in fact perhaps as many as seven different levels of delegation between the two extremes.

I believe it’s better to aim for the middle in this particular situation too. My preferred choice would be for the manager to honestly and openly approach the team. They should share their concerns in a neutral manner giving the team the information and the context they might be missing. Seeking to learn their position on the problem, exploring the different potential outcomes, exposing any implicit assumptions that either side might be holding and then allowing the team to take an independent, but hopefully better informed, decision. And even though it sounds like a long-winded process it can all be done in a 15 minute chat at a cafeteria.

However, remember what Senge repeats after Argyris

If there is disagreement, it’s usually expressed in a manner that lays blame, polarises opinion, and fails to reveal the underlying assumptions and experience in a way that the team as a whole could learn from.

If that were the case, perhaps the question we begun with is not even the right question to be asking.


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  2. Actually your post is almost something I wanted to pack into this tweet but wasn’t able to. I say “almost” because there’s a follow up to this: consider you’ve tried the third way and they didn’t change their mind. Now what?

    And I used a role of senior manager on purpose. With coach it would be easy – you usually just go away. However if you think about management you take responsibility for your actions (or lack of them for this matter).

    • Paweł,

      First of all thanks for the great, provocative question 🙂

      Now, I think it’s OK if people don’t change their mind as long as they know the opinion of others. For me that’s the essence of a good, trusting relationship. It’s not the role of a senior manager to always convince the team or team leaders to change. I would never start with an assumption that the senior manager is right (how can we really know up-front).
      For the people involved and for the organisation as a whole, to achieve true learning, everyone must accept that they can be equally right or wrong and that they should explore with others what is the best approach to take.

      In the example above, I can see a few outcomes – the senior manager reveals his thinking, adds information and then (for example):
      * everyone agrees that with this new information it makes sense to change the decision
      * no consensus is reached but both options are weighed up and the team’s decision is chosen
      * no consensus is reached but both options are weighed up and the senior manager’s decision is chosen
      * the team gives their reasoning and experience and the senior manager agrees his idea was incorrect

      As long as we all agree that a certain decision is taken and note why it was taken and with what reservations we can then go back an evaluate the results to gain feedback on our decision making process to improve in the future.

      You also touch on another interesting aspect – responsibility. I don’t have a clear answer in my head, but I’m about to write some questions into a new blog post.


  3. Hi,

    I think the responsibility is the key in this situation.

    I’m afraid there are many factors which should be considered by the Senior Manager
    if there is no clear solution after problem has been discussed with the team:
    a) what is the expertise and knowledge needed, is it rather business or development
    (e.g. implement a feature vs choosing application server)
    b) how long do we have to wait to see if the decision was wrong ?
    c) is there any (cheap) emergency solution in case the decision is wrong ?
    d) what are the consequences of wrong decision ?
    e) do we really have to make this decision now ?

    If in short time we will know the decision was wrong I would take team’s decision, prepare for plan B and monitor situation.

    If consequences are minor I will let the team learn that either:
    a) I trust them – if they made right decision
    b) In some cases they should trust me – if they made wrong decision

    Sometimes the best solution is to wait until we really have to make the decision.


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