I was in a staff meeting a couple of weeks ago when the answer given by one of our senior staff members to a question was “Well I have a choice, I can be right or I can be effective – I am choosing to be effective.”

Those were the only words I wrote in my pad that day and I have been staring at them for a couple of weeks now. They bother me. Why? Because I want to be both right and effective and I don’t like to even entertain the thought of having to choose. However, I know better than that. I left my rose-colored glasses somewhere with my Elton John LPs and I realize that we have to make this choice frequently.

Let’s be clear about this choice as we begin to talk about it though. This choice is usually not about compromise, unless we are referring to the fact that we are compromising our principles in making it. This choice is about giving in or giving up in order to make something happen. Compromise usually involves both parties giving something up to reach agreement. Choosing between being right or being effective means you lose, they win on an issue with you banking on the idea that you are willing to lose the battle but hopefully win the war.

This can be a successful strategy, particularly better than winning the battle but losing the war, but it can also be a slippery slope and if taken too often can lead to problems. What kind of problems? Let me enumerate a few:

  • Choosing this path too often can lead others to believe that you are a pushover, thus they will no longer even try to compromise with you, and instead they will make demands and expect you to give in on your principles.
  • Choosing this path too often will eat at you as a manager – after all, you’re giving in/up on something you believe to be right/true and if you do that too often what are you left with?
  • Your staff observes you and they mentally keep track of your winnings and losses, particularly if they share the belief/principle that you are giving up on and it causes them work that they find “distasteful.” Do this enough and you will lose all credibility with your staff and they will consider you spineless.
  • Choosing this path and not frequently winning the war means that you are good at appeasing people but should make you wonder if you are truly managing anything?

So having said the above, when do you make this decision and how do you go about handling the repercussions?

First, this can often be a situational decision but it really requires forethought on your part and it should be a conscious decision, not a knee-jerk reaction. So try to avoid having to make this choice on the spot if you can avoid it.

In order to do that, you should first seek to make sure your position is clear and well understood. You can do this by simply saying “Please forgive me but I don’t think I am making myself clear. If I may, let me restate my thinking on this.” You always want to avoid making it seem as if they can’t comprehend what you are saying (even if it is the case.)

After ensuring that your position is understood, determine if you are still encountering resistance or whether you have agreement. If you are butting up against resistance then you need to do some quick evaluation:

  • Who am I talking with?
  • What power do they have?
  • What are the possible repercussions of standing your ground?
  • Are you the final authority or representing someone who has the final authority?
  • What are the stakes involved? Are you being asked to give in on an important principle or something relatively minor?

Ideally, you will have thought all of this through before your encounter. However, there are times when it has to be done on the fly. In either case, if you’re not the final authority you often can defer and say that you have a difference of opinion and need to take it back to a higher authority. This gives you more time to further evaluate the situation.

If that’s not possible, your next goal is to reach compromise. Most people are willing to work with you if given the chance and being a creative compromiser is a valuable skill. Just look to Henry Clay as an example. In Mr. Clay, we have a historical figure whose whole reputation was built on bringing people together in compromise.

If you are unable to defer or compromise and have to make the choice of being right or effective, make sure you let the people know who are being impacted by your decision why you made it. You can stand by it, there is no sin in that – but making the decision and then letting those impacted speculate as to why you succumbed is worse than giving the actual facts – if you can. There will be those times when you cannot share that information, but I have found those to be less frequent than one would think.

In summary, having to choose between being right or being effective is a typical task for a leader at any level of an organization. In fact, you don’t have to be in a managerial or supervisory position to be faced with this kind of decision. In all cases, it should make you uncomfortable that you have to do so, but with some skill and finesse you will find that more often than not you can turn the situation around or at minimum reach a compromise.