How Not to Disagree

Imagine a simple scenario. Your manager is proposing changes to your roadmap. Those changes would negate months of work by your team. You lead the team and don't agree with the new direction. Following a robust discussion your manager makes the change over your objections. How do you proceed?

This is a common occurrence in business. It is also grounds for one of the most common mistakes I see.

In this scenario, many leaders sell out their management and rally the team. They say management sucks, but don't worry, we will make progress in spite of them. This approach is staggeringly effective.

Until it isn't.

In the short term, the team galvanizes as underdogs against the common enemy. They survive the change more committed to one another and to their immediate manager. They are "us" and everyone else is "them." It feels good. As long as this was the only change to the roadmap the team would be fine.

But this won't be the only change. Under this oppositional framing each additional change hits the team hard. They start to see themselves as victims. They don't trust company plans or rely on those plans to be stable. They don't believe they can affect company direction. Success is now earned in spite of the company while failure comes because of it.

Over the long run, this conflict moves the team from a victim mentality to outright martyrdom. They quit or change teams because even their beloved manager is ineffective. This is clearly not the ending one would hope for. It could have gone better.

So let's return to the opening scenario. How should a team leader proceed when management makes a decision they disagree with?

Assuming you don't disagree enough to leave the team, you must commit to the new direction. It doesn't mean pretending to agree and offering blind fealty. But it does mean demonstrating your intention to execute to the best of your ability on the new path. Driving a wedge between yourself and your management only sacrifices your own credibility. Instead enlist your management to help you execute.

It is important to acknowledge the frustration people may be feeling. You should even share your own. But you also can't let people linger to the point that it becomes debilitating. Instead you can share the process that led to the decision. You retain agency by making your team the owner of the change.

Only when your team feels agency can they work effectively. Only once they trust you will the follow you. Only once you commit can you truly lead.