CXO

Five rules for dealing with marching orders you dislike

One of the most difficult aspects of being a manager comes when you are forced to guide your team through an executive decision you dislike. This advice can help you manage through the rough spots.


This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.

Your team members aren’t the only ones affected by the deep budget cuts and staff reductions that accompany tough economic times. Managers are employees, too, and change and uncertainty affect how eager we are to get out of bed each morning, as well.

But as managers, it falls to us to just keep soldiering on and doing the best we can with what we have. I often say that if work was always fun, you wouldn’t get paid; I imagine that’s a little cynical, but at some point every working manager has to execute on a plan that he or she simply doesn’t like or strongly disagrees with.

What’s the secret to marching on and keeping your sanity, along with a smidgen of your team’s respect? It’s not easy, and in some ways it requires a degree of detachment and reserve that you may find a little distasteful and out-of-synch with a casual management style. (Again, remember that you are getting paid to do this, so buckle up, soldier.) I’ll also throw out a slightly petulant notice that my advice is not for managers whose singular objective is personal advancement in the corporate ranks—there are plenty of tried-and-true ways to play that game to its inevitable conclusion. This column is for plain-old working stiffs who want to make the positives outweigh the negatives.

So, here are my rules for being a good corporate solider. Not quite the Geneva Convention, but then again, the first and most essential rule I can cite is this:

1. Remember that there will be no casualties; it's just work
Workaholic manager types tend to have a lot of trouble here (I know I’ve been guilty of this one myself), but a little perspective is essential. Your world is not going to disintegrate if a project collapses or a business fails, and neither are the lives of your employees. Go have a drink with your non-work buddies once in a while, blow off some steam, and remember that your team is doing the same. Lighten up.

2. Decide whether you really want to be a soldier in this army, and then get on with it
Daily self-reflection on whether you really want to work for your employer will make you a wreck, and your team is going to notice (again, guilty here). Talk to some trusted friends, your therapist, your spouse—anyone outside the workplace—weigh the pros and cons of the situation, and then commit yourself to a plan of action. Yes, maybe you should go find a new job, particularly if your employer is asking you do something you think is just outright immoral (that does happen). But whatever the case, fix your allegiances and then start marching.

3. Ask your general for "permission to speak freely"
Before you embark on an initiative that you find a little spurious, ask for a meeting with your boss to run through your key issues. Prepare for the meeting with a list of risk factors and the potential downsides that have you leery; in good faith, go ahead and document your concerns via e-mail—a sense of formality is appropriate in conflict situations such as these. Be laborious in detailing your reservations about what seem to be even the most obvious problems with the proposed move; blurting out “it’s just stupid” is seldom going to pervasively make your point, particularly since someone somewhere doesn’t seem to think it’s so stupid.

Metrics are your best ally here; ask to the see the ROI projection or some other key bottom-line impact from the planned shift, so that you can educate yourself a little further and, if appropriate, challenge the idea at the root of its perceived value proposition. And try to come up with a couple of tweaks that can at least improve upon some aspect of the project—it’s called “adding value,” and it goes a long way in selling criticisms to your boss.

Finally, ask your boss if you can present your concerns and suggestions to the relevant group of senior managers. Maybe it’s too late to pull the brake cord, but at least your suggestions may temper the impact on your team. If your boss says that you can’t communicate up or over the ladder, don’t freak out, but I advise you to reconsider point number 2 on my list.

4. Clearly define your mission's end point
At the very least, try to establish a clear failure point where, if your fears become a reality, you can cut your losses and move on. (About the only thing worse than a really bad initiative is a really bad initiative that just won’t die.) Having a clearly fixed project scope will give your team a light at the end of the tunnel and, more important, help you communicate your mission to your team with a sense of certainty. After candid conversations with your own boss, you should be able to avoid the terminal pitfalls of telling your team “I don’t know” or “There’s no way of telling” when they ask about the why, what, where, or when.

This brings me to the most vital rule of managerial soldiering.

5. Be a colonel, not a private
This is where that uncomfortable detachment I mentioned earlier comes into play. After doing the homework spelled out in items 1 through 4, make your personal buy-in decision and then get to work. Never present a change to your team by saying that you don’t really agree with it or that your think it’s a little goofy. And at all costs, don’t try to stay in your team’s good graces by personally distancing yourself from the decision.

You may think this appeases your disgruntled team members, but these situations are where the rubber hits the road in the manager/employee relationship. Ultimately, employees want their managers to fix their problems; if you come out and say that you’re powerless to affect employees’ work experience, you’ve just nominated yourself for “stupid jerk who can’t do his job” honors. Trust me—it will happen, no matter how well things have gone to date. The final test of any relationship is adversity, and to make it through a tough transition, your team needs a decisive leader who is willing to own his or her personal decision to act out the company’s plans.

During discussions with your own boss, determine which aspects of the change proposal are simply immutable, and find three or four areas where your team can challenge assumptions and provide some constructive input. Give the team a day or two to vent about the other stuff, and then make it clear that it’s time to start working toward the goal.

If a team member is completely agitated by what’s coming, make time to run through the same process you just undertook with your own boss. After all, every employee—regardless of title—has to enlist as a solider on his or her own terms.

And then, it’s time to march on.

About Ken Hardin

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...

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