One of the key political skills is knowing when and how to voice opposition to a managerial decision. A misstep here can cause you to lose your side of the argument for good, and with it any possible wriggle room on interpreting the decision, and also be a major career mistake.
This week I was in a meeting where two groups were discussing how to combine their activities. One group is having to adjust to the inclusion of the other team's project managers into their long standing processes and projects. Senior management had decided that the first group’s projects lacked sufficient management rigor. They were more right than they knew, rigor was missing not only from the projects but also from the executives that launched and prioritized them. But more on that subject in a future posting
The change had been in place for some weeks but the integration was spotty with the usual foot dragging and half-hearted cooperation, but no overt opposition. The classic guerrilla warfare strategy aimed at wearing down the invaders with minor delays and obstacles. That was until this meeting when one of the managers in the first group decided to voice her opinion that the change was unnecessary and she didn't see the need to implement it. So far so good, from her viewpoint, she'd stated her opposition and since it was a view that others shared no serious damage had been done. Honest opinions are always welcome.
But knowing when enough is enough was not in this individual's skill set. She kept on arguing her point of view in a vigorous and forthright manner. She wouldn't allow others, including her boss, to finish their comments. She just steamrollered right over them. When my boss tried to intervene she received the same treatment.
The net result was that the vague guidelines that had been in place prior to the meeting will now become more explicit; should will be replaced by shall and all wriggle room and obstacles will be swept away.
The overt opposition resulted in the opposite outcome to that intended. The invaders were not repulsed, far from it as they were now securely ensconced in the heart of the process and opposition to them will be frowned upon.
As far as the individual is concerned she not only embarrassed her boss in a public meeting, she also lost the support of her peers. Even those who in general agreed with her arguments were appalled at her strident behavior. Her ability to influence future events has been negated and she's going to have a career counseling session with her boss – never a good outcome.
How should she have proceeded?
Well keeping quiet once her boss failed to support her would have been a good start. Never raising the issue in such an open forum would also have been a smarter move. Unless you know you have the votes or the backing of the decision makers then raising controversial issues in public is never a clever move. She should have worked on her boss in private and got his concurrence with the delays and interpretations. Covert opposition was the way to go.
Opposing senior management decisions requires a very careful analysis of the political environment and an appreciation of what is possible and practical. Sometimes ambiguous instructions that allow you to interpret them in your favor are preferable to outright opposition that leads to the codifying of the rules you don't agree with. If you believe that you can't live with ambiguity then make sure that you can live with the clarifications you seek. Always be careful what you wish for.