line drawing of an atom

Making Peace with Decisions You Disagree With, When You Are a Manager and Have to Be On Board


From a mid-level manager:

I’ve been a manager for about five years now and have been steadily promoted throughout that time. As I get deeper into organizational leadership, I’m finding that I still have a lot to learn. My own manager recently chastised me for undermining the decisions of organizational leadership in general, and more specifically for not supporting his decisions as the leader of our division. The exact decision doesn’t matter, but yes, I totally disagreed with it and made it known to my staff, who also disagree for the same reasons. We weren’t even given a chance to give input on the decision before it was made.

When I was a lower-level manager, my dissent didn’t seem to bother anyone. So why is it an issue now? I’m trying to figure out if my manager is right or being unreasonable. And if he is right, then how can I reconcile being opposed to something yet having to support it to my staff? That seems impossible. And if he is wrong, then how do I move forward without jeopardizing my career?

Just about every type of leader will have to support a decision they disagree with. For the sake of this post, let’s put a pin in any disagreements over ethical or illegal matters. If something is illegal or unethical, that is a whole different ball game.

The short answer: Yes, your manager is right.

Part of the role of anyone within organizational management (leaders, directors, managers, whatever your title) is to support and execute on decisions from those above them. There is a time and place for expressing dissent and discussing alternatives. But once the decision has been finalized, then you’ve got to hop on board when it comes to leading your own staff (or plan your exit from the organization or role).

The nuanced answer will take the rest of this post.

First off, I want to acknowledge that it is hard to be motivating to others about a thing you disagree with. Especially when it is a very big thing. And it can be downright maddening when you haven’t been given any opportunity to give input on a decision that impacts you or your team. And now I’m telling you that you need to figure out how to be on board? WTF.

I’m not saying it is right. Or part of a healthy organizational culture. But it is a reality that many leaders face daily.

In a healthy organizational culture, there is a time and place for bringing up concerns about various courses of action. There is room for constructive debate. But once you’ve voiced your concerns, if you are overruled, then you’ve got to move on.

I can almost hear your objections as you read this. “But the decision is very clearly wrong because:

  • It doesn’t have a solid business case for it.
  • It runs counter to reaching the stated objective. There are better ways of getting there.
  • It’s not feasible, given the other work in my team’s portfolio of responsibility and current priorities.
  • It’s not feasible, given the resources allocated to the project (e.g., time, money, expertise, political will, etc.) or the dependencies that are in play.
  • It runs the risk of [X] happening and that would cause [negative impact]. They don’t seem concerned about [X] happening and I’ll be the one who has to deal with it.
  • It seems ill-conceived, pointless, uninteresting, unnecessary, etc.”

So how do you deal with the situation when your staff are frustrated with the decision, share the same concerns you have, yet you need to be saying and doing things in support of the decision? How do you remain true to yourself and also do the job you are being paid for?

Revise your definition of yourself as a manager.

Maybe no one ever told you this, but managers are, by definition, agents of organizational leadership. Whether or not you think it should be a part of your job as a manager, supporting and implementing decisions comes with the territory.

Likely you’ve never thought of it that way because it isn’t explicitly in your job description. But it is definitely something you are being judged on for your performance. Even if your own manager isn’t bringing it to your attention as something to work on, know that you may be passed over for future promotion if you are known to be someone who undermines decisions.

Remember that information is asymmetric.

Often you are in a position that doesn’t have full visibility to all of the information and would be more understanding or on board if you had it.

Sometimes you’d still be diametrically opposed to the decision, even if you had access to all the information. But starting from that assumption isn’t helpful for making peace with the situation and moving on.

Just move on.

Take the decision as given and move on with planning and action.

  • Given that I/we need to do [X], what will it require from me/us?
  • What resources do I/we need?
  • What timeline is reasonable?
  • What are the dependencies?
  • If the risks/challenges do come to fruition, what does mitigation look like and what resources will be needed?
  • What priorities need to be shifted, given the other projects in my/our portfolio? (If you don’t have a handle on your existing projects, read this post on weekly reviews and this post on getting a handle on your work overall as a great place to start.)

Once you’ve wrapped your head around things, you can identify items across your individual/team portfolio that you recommend will need to be prioritized, deferred, delegated, or renegotiated in order to successfully execute the new decision. Perhaps discuss with your team or colleagues if input is appropriate.

If you have agency to act, then start communicating your priorities, deferments, delegations, or renegotiations and move to action.

If you need to get approval from your manager, schedule a meeting and pitch your recommendations. You might send an email based on the following.

I’d like to provide an update on our progress on decision [X]. I’m finding that it is having the following impact on the team’s work portfolio [...].
In order to execute on it as specified, we will have to pause work on [X], or extend out the timeline by [Y], or [alternative Z].
My recommendation is to do [spell out recommendation and what you need for it].
Do I have your support in that course of action or is there something we need to discuss further?

As soon as you encounter an actual obstacle, report it up to your manager and discuss like you normally would.

Maybe your manager is skilled and will rationally discuss with you from there. Maybe they have a fear of their manager and will not dare rock the boat for fear of being perceived as pushing back.

Reflect on whether you object on principle.

Which of the basic personal values (BSPACE) or your own personal values is being violated by the decision or is being honored in your need to stand up to the decision? This question isn’t fruitful 100% of the time, but is always worth reflecting on.

Talk to some managers/leaders in your network.

Here is some language you might start with.

I am having difficulty reconciling having to support a decision that I disagree with, especially as it pertains to getting my staff on board when they also disagree. I recognize it is a part of my job to act in support of a leadership decision (when not unethical or illegal), regardless of my opinion or assessment of the situation. Can you share how you’ve handled it within your own career?

Try a mantra.

Here is an example:

It is healthy to share business-related concerns with organizational management. I cannot control their response or what they do with the information. My role is to express it clearly and respectfully, and then to let it go.

Respect the “Office”

What would you want from your managerial staff if you were the one who made this decision? You’d want them to execute on it.

Remind yourself that different leaders have different styles and those above you have information you are not privy to. Sometimes the stated objective isn’t the real objective. Sometimes there are legal or fiduciary constraints you don’t know about. Someday you’ll be in their shoes and will find out that it’s not as easy as it may look. (Maybe you fancy yourself as someone who’d make perfect decisions that everyone understands and supports … that’s cute.)

Focus on this as a skill-building opportunity.

The higher you go in leadership, the more you will need to be someone who can champion something that may not even be close to your ideal. It’s a total myth that leaders love all the initiatives they come up with or decisions they make. Often time, they are coming up with a course forward through an environment with multiple constraints, inherent risk, and significant tradeoffs.

Practicing making peace with decisions you disagree with will serve you as you continue to advance in your career.

>>> Free Download

a mockup of the pages from the workbook

Sign up to receive your free copy of Purpose. Presence. Power. A daily practice to help you stay connected.

The 6-minute guided practice audio file and companion workbook are waiting for you.

Follow Burnout Proof on social media.

the Instagram logo, an outline of a camera the TikTok logo, a musical note