Managing up, part 2: Getting your manager past consensus
Some managers insist on consensus for every decision that gets made. Here’s how to handle a manager like that.
“Managing up” takes more than just flattering toadyism and “personal branding.”
There is, for example, the art of teaching your manager her (or his) job without her realizing that this is what you’re up to.
Last week’s missive provided some techniques for helping your manager delegate better, disguised as techniques for receiving assignments better. Where else might your desire to be an excellent employee collide with your manager’s less-than-complete eptitude?
Here’s one that drives many employees crazy: An inability to get decisions made quickly and effectively. If you sometimes feel like screaming, “Just make a decision! Any decision! It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as we know which way ‘forward’ is!” here’s how to handle the situation:
Start by understanding the different ways leaders make decisions, and what each of them is good for. Here’s the short version (for the long version, read Chapter 4 of Leading IT: <Still> The Toughest Job in the World, by yours truly, 2011):
- Authoritarian: “I’m the boss. This is the decision.” It’s the right answer for a crisis, when any decision right now beats a great decision made long after the battle is over. It’s cheap and quick. Like most everything that’s made cheaply and quickly, quality suffers. Also, there’s no buy-in.
- Consensus: “I don’t agree with it, but I do agree to it.” Consensus is authoritarianism’s polar opposite — slow and expensive, and with high buy-in. Also, consensus decisions involve compromise, so at best, quality is decent. Consensus is for the big decisions, when buy-in matters more than anything else.
- Consultative: “I want everyone to tell me what they think. Then I’ll decide.” It’s the manager’s workhorse, with enough involvement for buy-in and enough information for quality, without the compromises that degrade consensus decisions and without the endless discussions that delay them.
- Delegated: “You know more about this than I do, so you make the decision. Step one: Decide which decision style you plan to use.” Usually, the right answer to step one is for the assignee to make it consultatively.
- Democratic (aka voting): Don’t do it! Democratic decision-making is the right answer for choosing delegates and representatives. It’s the only possible fallback when nobody has authority and a group can’t reach consensus. But it’s awful, with poor quality and mediocre buy-in.
How does this knowledge help you?
If your manager is stuck in consensus, it’s probably out of either fear or ignorance — fear that without a consensus process you and your colleagues won’t buy in; ignorance that there are alternatives. (If your manager is stuck in authoritarianism you have a very different problem, which we’ll take on next week.)
So depending on the decision that isn’t getting made, here are two tactics you can use that will get it made, while making you look good and without embarrassing your manager. Call them the “It’s okay to lead, Fred” tactic and the “I volunteer Jane” ploy, Fred being your manager; Jane being a colleague.
Use the “It’s okay to lead, Fred” tactic when your manager should be making a consultative decision. It works like this: You say, “May I make a suggestion? We seem to be spinning our wheels here. Speaking just for myself, I’m willing to go with whatever decision you make, Fred. And so long as I feel like you heard what I have to say about it first, I’ll even be happy with it. How about the rest of you?”
The “It’s okay to lead, Fred” tactic accomplishes three goals at once: (1) It forces your manager to choose the optimal decision style (consultation). (2) It stiffens your manager’s spine. And (3) it puts everyone else in a box — after all, who is going to be say, out loud, that no, they won’t go along with the manager’s decision, once you’ve said you will?
Use the “I volunteer Jane” ploy when one person in the room knows a lot more about the subject than anyone else — when delegation is the right style. Which is all you have to say: “I have a suggestion, Fred. Jane is our expert in this subject. Why are we all getting an equal say in it? I say, delegate the decision to Jane and let’s move on. What do the rest of you think?”
Once again, you’ve forced your manager into the optimal decision style, and you’ve put everyone else in a box.
Meanwhile, Jane will either love you for this or hate you intensely, depending on how much work it promises to be and how risky the decision is.
But hey, you can’t have everything.