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You Are The "They": Communicating When You Disagree

Let me start with a little story. A few years ago, around this time of the year, the leadership team of which I was a member made the decision to host our company’s holiday party on a large boat. I was wholeheartedly against this idea. Our company was in dire financial straits, and I thought a flashy holiday party was both fiscally irresponsible and sent a mixed message to our teams amidst cutbacks and layoffs. Furthermore, a boat with no exits plus an open bar plus a bunch of twenty-somethings didn’t seem like a wise move in a time when inappropriate holiday behavior was finally under the scrutiny it deserved. And, I get seasick.

With passionate fervor, I argued and pushed back on the boat idea. But alas, I was overruled and the decision was made: We were going to party on the boat. What was I going to do? I now had to communicate (and communicate excitedly) to the company that we were hitting the docks for our party, despite completely disagreeing with the plan...

Last month, we talked about the simple lesson of the importance of communication as a manager. Well, this month, we’re going to talk about something a little more complicated: how to communicate a message to your team that you don’t necessarily agree with.

As managers we are often put in the position where we tell a team member that she did not get promoted, despite our strong conviction that she should have been promoted. We might be responsible for telling our team about an organizational restructuring that we don’t feel should happen. Or we might be responsible for relaying a company-wide policy that clashes with our beliefs about how something should have been handled.

As managers, we aspire to be authentic and vulnerable with our team, and we strive to be open in how we communicate. We also aim to be good team members ourselves - we are members of the management team and at times, the leadership team of our organizations. How do we reconcile these dynamics when they are in conflict?

How To Communicate When You Don’t Agree with the Message

Part I: The Prep Beforehand - before you have the conversation, make sure you fully prepare...

  1. Work to fully understand the rationale behind the decision. Often we get to the first level of rationale (the first “why”) in understanding something; but what we need to do is get to 4 or 5 “whys” down into the rationale.

  2. Recognize the source of your own concerns with the decision. You can use those concerns to make the decision stronger and build an action plan.

For example, with the boat party decision, I was concerned about over consumption of alcohol and people not being able to leave the boat if they didn’t feel well. Those concerns helped us to make the decision stronger (e.g., limiting alcohol to wine and beer; coming back to the dock sooner than originally intended to give people the option to leave if needed).

3. List the likely primary sources of concern for your team members. Why might this decision or message be upsetting or disagreeable to them? As best you can, start to anticipate and understand what their primary concerns are (and they may be different from yours!)

4. Disagree and commit. If you are part of the decision-making process, make sure your voice is heard and that you wholeheartedly dissent and raise your concerns. But once, the decision is made, commit wholly to the decision and to the team. This advice comes from Amazon’s principles - their leadership teams might not have unanimity in decisions, but they have unity once the decision is made.

5. In sum, work to answer the following questions before you speak to your team:

  • Where is your source of frustration?

  • What are your sources of concern?

  • What don’t you understand about the decision?

  • What are the biggest risks you see in the decision and how could you address those?

  • What parts of the decision do you agree with?

  • What will be your employees’ biggest concern when they hear the decision?

Part 2: The Convo: When go to communicate the message to your team, remember...

  1. You are the “they”. We often have the tendency to deflect responsibility in hard conversations - “They made the decision to not promote you”; “They decided to restructure our team”. Well, when you become a manager, there is no more they.

  2. Share the process. Remember procedural justice? Individuals feel better about decisions when they understand how the decision was made. Share the process for how the team came to the decision (and make sure you fully understand the process before you go into the conversation!)

  3. Be as specific as possible when sharing information about the decision. Share the rationale and the why’s behind the decision as much as possible. If you don’t know the answer to a team member’s question, be okay with saying “I don’t know” or “I’ll find out more”, but don’t use the they to deflect a hard answer or reopen a decision that has already been made (e.g., “I can ask them one more time if the team would consider promoting you.”)

  4. When a hard message comes, sometimes your team member may just want to vent. Allow your team member to vent frustrations or concerns, even if it is not going to change the outcome of the decision.

  5. Be aware of mixed messages - watch out for non-verbal cues! We might be saying one things, but our furrowed brow and crossed arms might be saying exactly the opposite….

  6. Jointly identify objections to develop an action plan. Just like your objections to a decision could help make the decision stronger and highlight important pitfalls, work with your employee during the conversation to turn their main concerns into an action plan.

Sharing communications that you don’t agree with might be one of the harder things you do as a manager. It’s one of those areas that’s hard to train for, hard to do well, and often feels unsatisfying and disappointing when you do it. The list I outlined above isn’t a cure-all fix to these hard conversations. Rather, I hope it’s a starting point as you navigate the trickiness of being a manager. Good luck, and let’s all be thankful for one positive aspect of this year: no holiday parties on boats.


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