Stop the team or let them fail?

I recently came across an interesting question: “Should a senior manager veto a decision of their team they don’t agree with, or should they do nothing and wait to see results?”

This is not only an interesting question. I’m sure it’s also one which often gets asked, especially as teams gain autonomy in organisations. For the time being, let’s leave out the more fundamental issue, whether we need managers at all (Bob Marshall already has some tasty thoughts on this).

So – 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 organisation. When seniority and position in the hierarchy is confused with experience and knowledge, senior managers feel 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 of that work 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, then you may think that the best outcome is to do nothing and wait for the results. 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 precipitates 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 them, 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 in the 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 began with is not even the right question to be asking.

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