It’s not a democracy

January 13, 2016 3coze

I love it when my work insights and my personal insights collide. Today is one of those days. I’ll skip to the punch line: The insight is that not every organization is, or should be, a democracy. Leaders sometimes need to impose an unpopular decision. First, I’ll tell you the two situations where this came up in the last 24 hours and then share some thoughts on where this might apply in your life.

It’s not Democracy: Part I

Yesterday, Craig and I were facilitating a session for a client in the not-for-profit sector. This is an organization that is in the midst of significant change. Once highly decentralized, and as a result somewhat inefficient, the organization is centralizing many decisions and working toward high performance.

[Cue squirming from formerly autonomous managers.]

During our session, the executive team bemoaned the frequent cries from members of management that the new strategy isn’t “their” strategy. In rebuttal, someone commented that the managers been actively involved in the development of the strategy. Others started rhyming off committees managers had populated and forums where their input was solicited. They argued that managers had helped build the strategy.

By focusing on how much input managers provided, they missed an important opportunity to shift the culture. By justifying and defending the inclusiveness of the strategy development process, the leaders were inadvertently revealing their discomfort with the centralized model. My advice to them was to be clear with people about the different roles of management and leadership. While they would continue to seek input, they would make the final decisions regarding strategy. Organizations are not democracies.

It’s not a Democracy: Part II

This morning, it was my regular “Walking Wednesdays” trip to school with my daughter Mac. The very animated conversation today was about yesterday’s student council voting. Apparently Mac has put herself forward to be a grade 4 class rep. Yesterday, each child in the class voted for a first and second choice girl and first and second choice boy to represent them on students’ council.

Somewhere along the way, Mac said something about her teacher overriding the vote if he didn’t think the results were legitimate. I was incensed. “What is he teaching you about democracy if the powerful teacher just overrides the will of the people!!!” I was completely incredulous… should I email the teacher and complain?

And then Mac calmed me down. “Mom, it’s not a democracy. Mr. McB is supposed to pick our class reps, it’s his decision to make. But he didn’t want to make the decision without hearing what we thought. So we gave speeches and we voted.”

Here was my 9 year old telling me exactly what I had told a group of executives yesterday: it’s not always a democracy and it’s not supposed to be. If the students voted for the kid with the best booger jokes, but not necessarily the kid who would transmit the required information to the class, it was the teachers’ job to make the right call. Input from students is good, students running the show might not be. Mac thought that made perfect sense.

If she ever becomes a manager one day, I’ll probably have to remind her of this story. Somewhere along the way she’ll probably get the impression that she’s supposed to have control over all things that affect her—just like everyone else. But we’re not supposed to control everything. We have leaders and sometimes they are in charge.

Do you need to relinquish control?

As you read this, do you relate? Are there decisions you are resisting or even contravening because you didn’t make them? You have relatively few good options:

  1. Seek clarification of the reasons behind the decision and, if they satisfy you, implement the decision.
  2. Openly share lingering concerns and, if the response satisfies you, implement the decision.
  3. Openly share lingering concerns and, if the responses don’t satisfy you, chalk it up to “you win some, you lose some,” and implement the decision.
  4. Leave.

Yup, those are pretty much the only good options. You certainly have other options, but they are destructive to you and the organization. For example:

  1. Disregard or circumvent the decision.
  2. Go along half-heartedly while taking every opportunity to bad mouth the decision and the leaders who made it.
  3. Say nothing, suck it up and go along, letting your frustration and animosity fester.

If there are decisions your leaders have made that you don’t like, I strongly encourage you to select one of the first four options and get out of the negative spiral associated with last three.

Are you a leader who needs to take charge?

For the leaders out there, be honest with yourself about your own comfort with authority. Are you sheepish about imposing decisions on your team? If so, are you sending mixed messages about the importance of implementing those decisions? Is your empathy for the plight of the manager detracting from your success and theirs?

Organizations aren’t democracies. It’s ok to seek input from people and then make the right call—even when it’s not the popular one. In grade 4 and in your organization.

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