Every manager intellectually understands that accepting his or her authority over others, means that there is no way in the world that they will be able to exercise that authority and always keep everybody happy. But knowing that is not sufficient to keep many managers from trying.
It is human nature for most of us to prefer that those around us whose lives we impact, respond happily and demonstrate support for the things we do. But the nature of having to make difficult decisions that change the work lives of others for good or ill, will inexorably create some discontent, disagreement, and unhappiness.
Many managers – new ones and quite senior executives alike – occasionally back away from decisions they absolutely should make, simply because being unpopular is more than they wish to face. While they may rationalize their indecision in other terms, the emotional discomfort that generally accompanies being cast in the role of villain is what they often are really seeking to avoid.
Part of any manager’s job is to make those decisions that they believe will improve the skills, work environment, and job performance of their subordinates, and thereby improve the quality of the product or service for which their organization is responsible. So, if in making these decisions there is no way to please everybody, what do you as the boss owe those subordinates whose work lives will be effected by the decisions you make?
First, you owe your subordinates a role in the process of making a decision that will directly affect them in the end. Whether that role means listening to the views of everybody, or a representative sample, humans adapt faster to decisions they had some voice in shaping.
Second, you owe your subordinates an explanation for your final decision that goes beyond “because I want it this way”, or is so obviously silly that it fails to pass the laughter test. In most cases, unless you can ground your explanation in the logic of your business – that is, it will make us better at what we must do – it is hard to garner much support. Subordinates do not need to like your reason but it must make some logical sense to them and the benefits you promise must seem real.
Third, you owe your subordinates your respect for their disagreements and potential unhappiness, and some time to for them to emotionally adjust. The larger the impact and change your decision will bring, the stronger the initial resistance is likely to be. All of us need some time to let go of what was, before we can grab hold of the new. To the degree you can involve subordinates in implementing the new, all the better.
Finally, you owe your subordinates implementation. I often tell my clients “there is no such thing as a decision until you have actually implemented it”. Few things make a manager look worse than to have ostensibly decided something, yet, for whatever reason, fail to follow through. Waiting for everybody to get on board is usually feckless since there are generally some who will never fully get there. In all decisions, there comes a time when the train must leave the station and the stragglers get left behind.
There is an oft-told story about the Spanish conquistador Herman Cortez who upon reaching the so-called new world, is said to have scuttled all but one of his ships so as to strand his men and cut them off from Spain and the Governor of Cuba’s authority. Faced with this dilemma, his crew had little choice but to follow him and the food inland and whatever new ventures lay ahead. The best managers recognize when it is time to scuttle their own ships and exercise the authority invested in them for the good of their organization.