An END RUN, as referred to in management circles, constitutes the behavior of a subordinate who surreptitiously goes around his or her boss to raise an issue with the boss’s superior. Perhaps the issue is a complaint about the boss’s management style or behavior, a desire to seek a reversal of a decision the boss has made, or an attempt to gain the superior’s blessing for something that has not as yet been discussed with their boss. Whatever the issue, the key lies in the surreptitious nature of the action. You will be blind-sided by any results.
How you handle an end run depends a great deal on the issue involved and on how your superior responds to your subordinate’s entreaty. Ideally, your superior quickly dispatches your subordinate with instructions to discuss the matter with the appropriate authority: namely you. Or perhaps your boss decides to discuss the matter with you directly, informing you from whence their information came, but ultimately leaving matters in your hands.
But suppose your boss takes action directly, approving your subordinate’s request or reversing a decision you have made? This will require a discussion between you and your boss. This discussion should not take on the character of a “how could you do this to me” rant. The relevant issue here is what your boss’s action does to undermine your managerial authority in the eyes of your subordinate and any other subordinates, who it’s a fair bet will eventually find out. As a manager, you are either in charge of your organization, or you are not. You are either empowered to make decisions, or you are not.
Reversing your decisions without your involvement and an explanation, or making decisions that are rightfully yours to make, is something the best boss’s never do. Your allowing this to happen without addressing it — diplomatically but directly — with your superior, amounts to your colluding with bad management practice. Do not do so.
Now, to your end-running subordinate. Good managers are not dictators or control fanatics. They do not fear being second guessed by their superiors, or being asked to reassess decisions they have made. They are not threatened by the ideas and thinking of others, or by the notion that their superiors will find out that one of their subordinates is unhappy with them in some way. But there is a professional way — and a set of rational limits — for airing disagreements up an organization’s chain-of-command and that is what is at issue here, and should constitute the basis of the discussion you must have with your subordinate.
If all of us were free to push our case ever higher in our organization’s management hierarchy until we attained the result we want, there would in essence by little substance to the notion of management authority. For an organization to function successfully, managers must make decisions that at some point are final. We all have the right to ask for input to a decision that will affect us personally, that we be given some explanation for the decision, and to expect that management will monitor a decision’s results to determine if it has achieved the desired outcome. But to work in an organization of any size is to understand that we will not always agree with our manager’s decisions and that we will need to either live with those decisions we opposed or “vote with our feet” and leave.
I have always encouraged managers faced with a subordinate determined to raise an issue at higher levels, to facilitate the process in a professional way. Assuming you have a competent and professional boss, you could offer to accompany your subordinate in a meeting with your superior, or you could arrange a solo meeting for your subordinate with your boss. While there is always the risk that your boss will end up asking that you reconsider something you have done, that still leaves the final management action where it belongs: in your hands.
In the end, it is important that your subordinate comes to except the legitimate function and purpose of a chain-of-command, without which no large organization can effectively operate. The issue is not about squelching dissent. Rather it is about the way dissent is professionally expressed and the necessity for moving on in the face of a legitimate decision you dislike. Employees who refuse to give up a fight and who carry out that fight in unprofessional ways, generally do not succeed in an organization. Helping a subordinate understand that, demonstrates that you have their long-term interest and success in mind. This is what the best managers know and do.
One final note. Dealing with an end run usually necessitates one or two potentially confrontational conversations. If you are a manager who assiduously avoids such conversations, perhaps you should consider another profession. They come with a manager’s job.