A framework for understanding, and then communicating decisions you may disagree with to your team.
Keeping our teams in the loop and making sure they have context on what’s going on in the broader organization is a critical part of our job as engineering managers. The role can sometimes feel like being a translator between different humans, business functions, and perspectives. But there’s one important detail to this work: When you communicate, you don’t just adhere to the original message like a professional translator would. Instead, you often transcreate: We adapt content, messages, and tone to suit our audience.
Even more so, you also have your own thoughts and opinions about what you’re asked to share with others. You have trusting relationships with your team members that you want to preserve, and may fear losing this trust if you relay a business decision that you don’t agree with. At the same time, the company likely expects you to execute on its decisions and get your team on board. How do you navigate this tension?
Navigating different viewpoints
Decisions and the change they bring often surface different perceptions, values, and individual motivations. What you don’t find important in a change will be a critical issue for others. This difference in viewpoints is one of the most common sources of tension and frustration in all kinds of change management.
In my career as a leader, I encountered many cases where my bosses or stakeholders, like product managers or HR teams, made decisions that I didn’t like, and which I still had to execute and communicate to my teams.
The way I handled my dislike or disagreement varied: There were (very few) cases where I kept it to myself, many where I actively tried to influence or persuade others to get the decision changed, and (very few) cases where I quit my job over my disagreement. In almost all of these cases, my teams weren’t aware of the full degree of my disagreement. Either I didn’t think that it mattered at all, or I felt that the degree of my disagreement wasn’t going to make a difference for them.
You may find that a curious approach, but my aim is to help you develop an approach that works for you. I'll share with you some tools to develop a communication plan for sharing a decision with your team that you disagree with.
You may not have much time before you have to communicate something, and that’s okay. Pick the ones that resonate with you and suit your current situation best, and add one or two that you find more challenging to think about.
Whichever questions you choose, be as honest with yourself as possible and don’t judge yourself prematurely. Communicating something you disagree with can be challenging, but the better you understand your own reactions and impulses, the better your communication will be – for your team, and for you.
1. Reflect on your past experiences
Our actions speak to who we really are, and not just who we want to be. That’s why I invite you to reflect on your past experiences with decisions that you disagreed with, and how you handled them:
- What was the last decision that impacted your team and which you really disagreed with? Maybe it was a big one, like a return-to-office mandate, strategy changes, hiring plan changes, or layoffs; or something seemingly small, like a change to who’s invited to a stakeholder meeting. Now think of the last decision that impacted your team which you weren’t really on board with, but that you were more willing to go with.
- What was the difference between these two decisions?
- What made one more agreeable to you in contrast to the other?
- And what was different about how you conveyed them to your team?
2. Fully understand the decision
You won’t be able to convey a decision to others that you don’t understand. But there’s another reason why this step is so important, and you may have experienced it too: I have more than once gotten very annoyed about decisions that later turned out to be entirely harmless, or at least less bad, once I understood the full context. We all have topics that can trigger a quick emotional response, and taking some time to really understand a decision comes with the benefit of creating some emotional distance.
Consider Harlan’s Razor: Don’t attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence (or lack of information) and check that you understand:
- What is the decision?
- What is the context for it? What are the reasons, goals, or motivations for it?
- Are there parts of the decision that may change over time?
- Check on confidentiality: What information can you pass on? If parts are confidential, what are the next steps in the communication plan?
Keep in mind that there will be cases where you can’t get all the information that exists about a decision. Common examples of high-confidentiality issues are employee-related topics (e.g. an employee’s health situation), security issues, or legal and compliance requirements such as during court cases or during IPO preparations.
This also means that there may be cases in your career where you may feel like people are keeping information from you. In some of those situations, they may not even be able to share with you the fact that there is information that they can’t share with you.
3. Understand your disagreement
Now that you fully understand the decision, if you still disagree with it, I invite you to dig into your disagreement. This step will help you understand your own motivations, and be useful to identify what’s worth communicating, and what may be worth letting go of:
- What makes you disagree? - Examples could be: Operational aspects and execution; values and principles; ethics or morals.
- What, if anything, do you want your disagreement to become? - Examples could be: Steam to blow off, change to the decision that was made, something to let go off.
- Where is the best place to land your disagreement in order for it to become what you want it to become? - Examples may be: A conversation with your boss; a meeting with a mentor to vent and ask for advice; your diary.
- What are the consequences of your disagreement with the decision? What steps will you take next?
- What relationship and other internal capital is it worth using on this decision?
- Do you care about keeping this job? How concerned are you about burning bridges? - You may not need these questions often, but they’ll be helpful if you ever do.
4. Identify what your team really needs
We all develop ideas about our teams’ needs, and over time, it’s easy to project our own onto others’ thoughts and feelings, and forget to check if our ideas are still accurate. That’s why it can be very useful to take a few steps back and assess what the people on your team really need:
- What about the decision is really important for your team?
- What about your disagreement is relevant for your team?
- If you want your team members to know about your disagreement, where’s that coming from? - Examples could be not wanting to risk credibility and trust of your team members, or a desire to maintain harmony, or avoid that the decision reflects on you as a person, or that people get an impression of you that’s not true or doesn’t feel fair.
- What additional context may be helpful for your team to handle this decision well?
- Based on what you learned so far, what does this mean for what you want to communicate to your team?
5. Prepare what you’ll say
Start by thinking about the overall sentiment that you want to convey, and where you want to take to your teammates. The following questions are inspired by Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate:
- Where are your team members now (mentally, emotionally, in their understanding)?
- At the end of your initial communication with them, where do you want them to be?
- What does this mean for what you want to say, when, or how?
In any communication, the environment and situation that it takes place in is an important part of it. You may only have limited influence here due to time pressure, but it can be worth considering the forum:
- Where and when can I best communicate this? Is it worth communicating this faster (at the risk of incomplete information) or understanding all details first (at the expense of being fast)?
- How can I set up the best possible environment to have this conversation? - An example could be to ensure that there’s enough time for questions after you shared the decision, or (not) sharing the information on a Friday. The latter is controversial; if I can decide, I personally try and share hard news earlier in the week, as it means we still have work days coming where we can discuss, instead of everyone chewing on it over the weekend alone.
Now that you understand your overall communication, prepare for some details. You know your team, and it can go a long way to prepare for the questions they will likely ask, so you can preëmpt their concerns:
Consider that your team members may raise points like:
- What does this decision mean for us as a team?
- What does it mean for me, an individual on the team?
- What does it mean for our work as a team?
- What are the reasons for this decision?
- Why aren’t we doing x instead?, and other challenging questions
- What do you as their leader think about it?
- What’s next?
- Share where people can get more information or where they can ask more questions.
Lastly, make sure that your message is straightforward and clear.
6. Say it, listen, and handle your team’s reactions
- Speak to the points that you prepared.
- Listen actively to your teammates’ questions and feedback. Make notes of what they’re raising. This will be helpful to compare against what you prepared and hone your instincts as a leader.
- Answer what you can; say what you can’t answer (yet). You may not know everything, and that’s okay. Say “I don’t know, but I will find out” when that happens. Write the question down and follow up with your team once you have more clarity.
- Embrace different reactions as information first. Your team members may react differently from what you’d expected. Treat their reactions with curiosity and try to understand as much as possible where they’re coming from. Focus on understanding first, you can still address their thoughts later and shift your focus on how you handle their reactions.
After your conversation with your team, review your notes. Decide what you want to do with the feedback. You may want to summarize it and relay it to your boss to keep them in the loop. Understanding reactions to decisions like this and their impact on employees can be useful for them.
Keep the communication and feedback flow going between you, your teammates, and your boss. In addition, it can be helpful to start redirecting your communication with your team and focus on how you’ll proceed from here.
I find Diana Larsen’s Circles of Influence model really useful for this. It helps a team identify areas where they have the power to take action, and make intentional decisions about where they want to invest their energy and time. Especially in cases where a team has been in a more reactive mode, such as when there have been strategic changes that the team didn’t agree with. This can help them identify areas where they can make a difference and create a sense of agency again.
Bonus step: Consider your principles
I didn’t start out my career with a full set of principles. Many developed over time as I faced difficult decisions, and evolved as I gained more experience. I am sharing an excerpt of my principles with you today as they may prompt some ideas for you.
I bring my best self to work. Many companies use “bring your whole self to work” to describe their aspiration to be an inclusive environment, and being “authentic” is often seen as an important trait in leaders. As a leader, I do want to create an environment where everyone can show up as the most authentic self that they feel comfortable bringing. At the same time, I’m also well aware of the limitations of such ideals and corporate diversity and inclusion efforts in practice. That’s why personally, I focus on bringing my best self to work instead. I value clear boundaries between my personal and professional life; maybe that’s just the German in me that appreciates the concept of “Feierabend” (“celebratory evening”), both the moment you stop work for the day and the time after it. This also means that being “authentic” as a leader doesn’t mean just blurting out my opinions - my most authentic self is thoughtful, considerate, and empathetic.
I believe that my role as a leader is to help an organization achieve its goals, taking our teams along to help us get there, and helping the business make the best possible decisions to achieve these goals. My role is to help my team turn the corner to a new situation and make sure they have the context and tools to join us on the way there if they want to. If my experience or other reasons lead me to believe that the new situation or approach is a bad idea, I may take action to help us make a better decision. My job is not to agree with everyone and all decisions at all times.
I disagree and commit-ish. Many organizations use a version of “disagree and commit” to describe that their employees may have differing opinions but ultimately need to commit to decisions, even if they aren’t on board with them. To be clear, I find this idea not useful when it’s treated as a fancier way to tell people to “get in line.” I do, however, find “disagree and commit” a helpful framework for myself and my teammates to assess how to handle my own thoughts about a situation, using the questions outlined above.
My team and I speak with one voice. In our day-to-day, a critical piece of this is that my peer leaders and I (my “first team”) speak with one voice. While we don’t always agree, we will handle this disagreement among ourselves, with others like our boss as needed, and negotiate a path forward that we can all at least “disagree and commit” to. When communicating with our teams, we may use different words, but will convey the same overall message and sentiment. We may also include if we have individual reservations or concerns, but will ultimately not undermine the overall decision that we made as a group. This also means that I don’t pull my teams into an “us vs. them”-dynamic, such as “teams against higher-level leadership”, for example. Such dynamics are typically not at all productive and not even cathartic, and I’ve experienced how quickly they erode organizations from the inside. If my teams have concerns, I will take those seriously and do my best to address them.
In addition to these principles, I also have a set of values as well as ethical and moral principles that complement them, and may also supersede them sometimes. You can find another example of such principles in this episode of This American Life: What I Was Thinking As We Were Sinking. In it, Twitter’s former Trust & Safety Yoel Roth talks about when to leave, the principles that he used to make this decision, and how he communicated to his team before he ultimately left.
- What are your principles for communicating with your teams?
- What values are those principles based on?
Communicating something that you disagree with to others can be tricky and comes with a lot of tension, but approaching this communication deliberately and with self-awareness can go a long way in helping you navigate it successfully.