When Managers and Employees Disagree

by Krishna on October 14, 2007

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine contacted me about my previous post on managing other people and put forward some caveats. He pointed out that the comparison between managers and employees is not quite valid. There are many managers who are quite clueless about the company strategy, while many employees have a better idea about where the company should be heading.

Also, the article assumed that anyone who knew management techniques will eventually become a manager. This is not universally true, because many companies have technical career paths, where such employees continue to work on technical matters without ever managing human, material or financial resources. Finally, in the software industry, it is essential for employees (who wish to progress in their careers) to be knowledgeable about business needs.

So let me re-articulate my essay in light of those valid points. Here are some examples of the situation in the article:

  1. The employee does not do what the manager asks him to do at the right time.
  2. The employee goes against the manager’s orders and does the opposite thing.
  3. The employee does not do the task as effectively as the manager expected.
  4. The employee does not do the tasks in the order in which the manager expected or specified.
  5. The employee does exactly what he has been told, instead of thinking more deeply about it and avoiding other problems.

Here is where a manager should try to think, “Why does an employee do that? It seems very logical to me that if I tell someone, they will act upon it. They will ask when it should be done. They will think deeply about the task and ask for more details, if necessary. Finally, I should be able to get something that is reasonably close to what I described.

If managers would do that, the answer would stare them in their faces. Employees are not thinking the same way about those tasks as managers. This happens regardless of who (employee or manager) has more business sense or capability. For their own reasons, employees have accorded a different priority and importance to those tasks. Who is right or wrong does not matter.

Of course, for the manager who is responsible for the output, the choices made by employees do matter. Hence, it is incumbent on any manager who wants to get her work done in the expected manner to stay on top of prioritization. She cannot tell an employee, “I expected you to do that.” People do not communicate via telepathy. The employee, who has no idea about what is in his manager’s head, cannot be responsible for doing something different. Instead, the manager must specify what must be done, when it must be done and how diligently it must be done. She must make clear what trade-off’s can be made and why.

Now, my friend’s point about the manager being clueless about the business goal is very pertinent here. Sometimes a manager tells the employee, “Do this!” or “Don’t do that!” and the employee knows that disobeying that order would be the best thing for the company. Obviously, a clueless manager doesn’t care, but this article is not about such bad managers. What if a manager is genuinely mistaken, even though she doesn’t know it yet, and the employee knows better?

There are many situations where employees have hidden things from higher management and they have resulted in great successes. But the fundamental problem here is that everyone involved (both the innovators and the dissenters) are sincerely convinced about the rightness of their decision at the time. Until we see the final result, we can never tell because it is a gamble. And even though senior managers are sometimes wrong, many of them have made at least some good decisions to justify their present title. They may not necessarily be wrong.

It is a difficult choice, really. From the employee’s perspective, I can think of some guidelines that will help:

  1. Pick the right battles. The right battles are the ones with high risk and high reward on each side. The innovators are convinced of the New World. The dissenters can only see themselves going off the edge of the world. Spending enough time to discuss both sides of the problem in detail can help in greater understanding of each side and work towards a better solution. It is better to ignore some problems and save yourself for the crucial ones.
  2. Use the concept of “civil disobedience”. When Gandhi broke the unjust British laws, he knew that he would probably be jailed. He was willing to accept the punishment if there was a chance of shaking off the British rule. If your ideas as an employee are rejected, you can choose to proceed with what you want to do, as long as you are willing to accept the consequences of failure, such as termination. If you are successful, you may get away with it, but don’t bet on that.
  3. Accept that you could be making a mistake. Hence, do not take it personally when your ideas are rejected. And since there is this risk, be careful about involving other people who could be negatively affected by your failure. This includes your family, co-workers and also your manager. If you decide to do your own thing and fail what your manager wanted to do, then your manager will also get into trouble with his or her bosses. Assuming that your manager is a good person, such a course of action is a callous thing to do.

For a manager, here are some guidelines:

  1. Don’t think you are superior. The employees may know something that you don’t. Let them speak and hear them out. Ask questions instead of making statements. It is normal for people to come with ideas that are not entirely thought-out, but your questions can help them re-formulate their strategy and make it more effective.
  2. If you reject someone’s idea, sleep it off and re-evaluate it with a fresh mind. Sometimes, you may discuss and reject a person’s idea while you are talking with them, because the other person did not talk with much conviction. But the weak belief of that person has no relation to the strength of the idea. You may find gems when re-evaluating such ideas alone.
  3. Make it clear where the line is drawn. Managers have different levels of propensity for risk. You may be able to give some freedom and autonomy to your reports to do something different or new, even if you don’t fully agree with it. But beyond a point, you will be taking on too much risk that could affect the company and you personally. Make the boundaries clear to your employees, so that there is no finger-pointing at the end.

Common sense is often replaced by impatience, arrogance, and misunderstanding, among other human flaws. So it is easy to be cynical about this. But, I have seen many situations where managers have woken up, done a 180-degree on some rejected ideas, and made a great difference to how their projects and business operates. So it is possible. Will it work in your particular situation? I don’t know, but it is worth giving it a try. You have nothing to lose.

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