How unilateral vetoes can derail projects and create a toxic culture

Learn when vetoes can become dangerous and how leaders can address this issue.

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In the business book classic Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?, Lou Gerstner shares his experience arriving at a troubled IBM in the early 1990s and his attempt to turn the company around. One challenge he recounts was dealing with IBM's policy of the "non-concur," the ability of any employee to challenge any decision and cause a formal reevaluation. The intent behind the non-concur was likely noble, where substandard engineering or product development practices could be formally challenged and investigated without risk to the person declaring a non-concur. 

Like many well-intentioned ideas, non-concur ultimately created a culture where whole groups would refuse to acknowledge a decision or direction based on some minor directional disagreement. What's perhaps even more insidious than groups of employees avoiding taking action is when your leadership team gains a similar authority, whether stated or unstated and uses it to unilaterally redirect the organization without any corresponding accountability. 

When veto power becomes dangerous

As leaders in our organizations, we have both formal and "informal" powers, including the ability to make decisions, direct resources, and overrule various parties when appropriate. Some organizations have well-defined processes for dealing with dissent, while others might have informal processes that involve negotiation, discussion, and clarification. It's generally expected that these powers are used to further the best interests of the organization, and most disagreement results in a healthy dialog that drives toward a better decision.

For example, if your team designs a technical solution that they believe is in the best interest of the company, but a business unit head disagrees due to a unique need of his or her unit, in a healthy organization there will be debate and negotiation, discussions to identify the perceived differences and potential mitigations, and ultimately a decision reached that involves some compromise from all parties.

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But veto power becomes dangerous when it's uncoupled from negotiation and accountability. In the situation just described, that same business unit leader might wield unilateral veto power and demand that the technical solution be changed, or simply stop its execution without taking any accountability for what is ultimately a significant strategic decision. In its worst manifestations, a mere side comment from a high-ranking leader will stop a team dead in its tracks, abandoning months of well-designed work to pursue a hunch. 

Recognizing the problem

Like any organizational challenge, the first step in addressing the unilateral veto is to recognize it. Look for times when one seemingly offhand comment will completely derail and redirect a team with little to no protest.

If you find that a leader, perhaps even yourself, seems to have a near-mystical power to stop a staff member dead in their tracks from conveying an important point, and rather than protest or defend their position, then accepts that leader's directional change with downcast eyes, this is the most direct symptom of the problem. In healthy organizations, that staff member may be wrong but is given a chance to defend the integrity of their work or refine their thinking, rather than being redirected without any opportunity to defend the validity of their position. In its worst cases, you might find a local "meeting bully" who utters imperial proclamations, and expects they're followed without protest whether right, wrong, or indifferent.

Allowed to continue unchecked, your organization's culture will gradually atrophy, as staff will simply wait for direction from the most vocal leader, and the work they create will bounce from veto to veto, much like a pinball bouncing wildly between bumpers. While this needless bouncing creates a flurry of dramatic activity, sound, and blinking lights, it's unproductive and does little to advance your organization's strategic efforts. Not only that, but this behavior often allows leaders to avoid making critical strategic decisions since their unilateral vetoes create entropy rather than advancement. 

If you find that your team or company seems to be in a constant state of chaotic action, while simultaneously seems unable to successfully and sustainably execute strategic projects, you may have a culture defined by the unilateral veto, and may even be guilty of unknowingly wielding this card yourself. 

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...