The management override

I talked in an earlier post about people’s misconception of the management big stick, i.e. the ability to just instruct someone to do something rather than come to an agreement with them that they will do it. The misconception that I was highlighting was the belief of some people that wielding this big stick is what management is all about.

The truth is that the more I do this the more resented and thereby ineffectual I become. Only a little bit of respect is lost each time, but it soon adds up.

There are times when it can have the oppposite effect, but those are largely when I’m using the management override (to give it a more polite name) to impose a view that is almost a consensus, just one or two intransigent people are holding out.

So here are my tips on how to wield the management override:

Only ever do it when the situation absolutely requires it.

I have come across far too many managers who invoke the override at every point where they believe that people need directing to do something better than they currently are. In other words they think they know best and so they make people do it their way.

In many cases the manager will actually be right, their greater experience and awareness of the situation giving them the edge. But in these situations I ask myself the question – do I actually need to use the override or is there a better way to get what I want? In almost every case the answer is that I don’t need the override. Instead I can explain to the person concerned why I think there is a better solution and let them make their own mind up. Doing it this way means I have treated them with respect, like a fellow human being, not like a machine.

Another question I ask myself is – is this sufficiently important for me to want it changed? Surprisingly the answer I keep coming across is no, it isn’t. Again, there are some managers who have to fix everything they think is broken, no matter how important, who is doing it, or what the possible outcome, and they fix it by using the management override. I think that what they forget is that we are all learning and we all learn by making mistakes and getting it right the next time. If I stop someone from ever making a mistake then they might end up learning what I teach them, but they will never learn to learn for themselves.

This is one of the biggest generators of resentment for management – if we don’t let people get on and do their jobs because we interfere too much.

If it has to be done then it should be done as respectfully as possible

There are times when we have to do it. For example I do it about the use of indirection in our infrastructure because I think that is so overwhelmingly important. But when I do it there is a certain process that I follow to minimise the impact.

  • At the forefront of my mind is the knowledge that I am overriding the will of others, and their views are based on just as much thought as mine and just as deeply held.
  • I explain my reason for doing it, which is normally because there is no consensus and yet a decision must be made, or because I’m convinced this is the right way to go.
  • I explain the decision in as much detail as possible to those affected.
  • I generally need to publicly state that my solution is not perfect and there are unresolved issues. Then I need to make it clear that I know those issues and will keep a watch on them.
  • I have to make it clear that if a better solution comes along, in particular one that has consensus, then I will change my views. The door is not closed.
  • But sometimes I have to make it clear that the fact I am using the override does not mean they can disengage and leave things to flounder. Of course good staff would never do that.

Other tips

When I’m involved in a discussion about what is the best way forward, or how something should be done, I have to make it clear that I am participating on an equal basis as others and not using the override. I have to repeat this often. If I don’t then people forget and assume I am using it just because of my position and not anything I say.

Occasionally, despite my being convinced I am right, I find that I have got it completely wrong and so if I had used the override then I would have caused a real problem. I wonder how many managers do that and then don’t have the integrity to admit it and try to undo the mess they’ve created?

Delegation, empowerment and decision making

Delegation and empowerment are two very trendy buzzwords used by modern managers. But I’m not sure that many people, both managers and staff, have anything more than a vague notion of what they mean in practice.

Every now and then someone comes to me and says,

“I’ve got this really good idea how to sort out this problem. It means us changing the way we work like this …”

to which I reply,

“Great idea. As you’ve thought of it I’d like to delegate managing this change to you.”

Now a very small percentage of people can’t wait to go and tell everyone else what to do, but most people are horrified at the idea and instead reply with either

“Thanks. So can I go and tell everyone they you’ve decided they have to change and if they have any problems to talk to you?


Thanks. So will you go and tell everyone that you’ve decided they have to change?

All three of them are making the same mistake, which is to assume that a management decision is about telling people what to do. So they react according to their personality when they think this is what they are being asked to do. I’ve learnt to spot a flicker in the eyes that gives away this internal conflict (or in some cases the eyes lighting up at the prospect) and explain exactly what I expect.

The steps are:

  • Start off by working out who will be affected by the change. Not just colleagues but managers as well.
  • Then consider how they are likely to react to the change.
  • If it looks like they will have some issues, then work out what to do about it
  • Then go and consult with the people who will be affected, explaining the change, listening to their views armed with the planning you have already done.
  • If there are any concerns, suggestions or other views, then listen to them and change your idea to accommodate these views. Don’t be stubborn, negotiate.
  • Aim for consensus, and when you have it then the get a firm plan agreed for implementation.
  • Keep the people affected informed every step of the way

And that’s all there is to delegation, empowerment and decision making – reaching consensus amongst colleagues and keeping people informed.

The most important thing I want them to realise, is that none of this takes the official role of ‘management’ to achieve. You can do it whether you are the most junior person in the team or the most senior, all it takes is good listening, persistence and a desire to get things done. Interestingly, it was following these steps before I was a manager that got me recognised as someone who got things done and helped me get promoted to management.

Unfortunately there are quite a few managers who don’t realise that this is how they should reach decisions, by consensus, not by the management big stick. I had one manager working for me a few years ago who was so bad at this that I had to draw a diagram in Visio to teach him how to make decisions without trampling over all his staff. He never really got it and was both unpopular and ineffectual as a result.