When Top Down Management and Disagree and Commit Collide!

hand-grenade-5-1148586-mBattle Royale time! What happens when you take Top Down Management and mix in a fast paced Disagree and Commit strategy? Unhappy employees, poor decisions, and a culture of blame ensue. Before we get to that though, a little primer on both strategies.

Top Down Management
Top Down Management gives control of all decisions and discussion to the manager or executive. They are responsible for the long-term vision, goals, timelines and direction. This management style rarely takes input from employees, but does expect them to follow the lead of the decision maker. When mixed with highly skilled employees, the result can often be a disincentive to perform well because they are no longer stakeholders in projects or the long-term vision. At an extreme level, top down management can lead to poor decisions and high turnover if management isn’t low enough to determine the real needs of the customer.

However, as Jill Geisler points out in her article on the subject, there are times when it can be used very effectively. For example, if the manager has a higher level of expertise than the directs and the issue is urgent, it would be better to allow that manager to make the decisions alone. A good example of this would be the following scenario. A manager has given an important, quick-fire project to an intern due to resource constraints. The manager has the direction, but the intern has little knowledge or drive. The manager would drive the intern with clear instructions for completing the project. No decision should be made by the intern. The intern is nothing more than an extension of the manager, doing what is asked.

When I think of Top Down Management, I think of Gino Molinari, a character from Philip K. Dick’s novel, Now Wait for Last Year. Gino is the elected leader of Earth during a war with an alien species. He takes a drug that allows him to travel sideways into other universes where he pulls an alternate of himself back to his own timeline to lead as his health deteriorates (which it inevitably does, over and over). He trusts no one to lead the Earth or make decisions regarding the war except for himself, and any version of himself will do. All decisions rest with him and his vision guides the Earth, for good or bad. He even goes as far as to have a meeting with Earth’s allies while he is having surgery (on more than one occasion). Gino is an extreme example of how mistrust can be translated and excused with Top Down Management. If you feel a kinship here, you need to re-evaluate some things.

Disagree and Commit
This one can be fun if you’re surrounded by passionate people that can handle criticism, but it can also be inherently poisonous. This management style encourages open discussion and arguments in order to achieve a decision or strategy in the best interest of the company. Once that decision has been made, everyone commits to it and moves on. If you have someone who can’t commit though or feels that their opinion wasn’t heard, it can fester away and cause dissatisfaction with their role on the team.

Someone who used this strategy successfully was Abraham Lincoln. He installed a cabinet that, while disagreeable to his own views, were still honest. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, she outlines how Lincoln brought these rivals together and allowed spirited debate to influence his decisions, resulting in a stronger country.

Collision of Practices
Despite the benefits of each separately, when you combine them together, you create a scenario that augments the worst outcomes. Using Top Down Management, a manager drives the conversation, but relies on Disagree and Commit to engage their employees for feedback. Instead of employees discussing and deciding strategies at the team level, the information flows only back up to the manager alone. This is because the employees aren’t trying to convince each other, only their manager. Therefore, no productive discussion occurs at the team level, eliminating potential pitfalls and silencing helpful opinions. Any bias on the manager’s part is amplified and fed back to the subordinates because of the nature of the relationship. Regardless of their input, they ultimately do not receive the active participation that allows them to commit and move on. This can lead to feelings of low self esteem when identifying with the team and results in failed projects, delays or even attrition. The worst case scenario would be the delivery of a product or solution that isn’t in line with a customer’s needs.

Another consequence of these combined strategies is a lack of standards and consistency. By employing these strategies together, the manager, who has now taken the burden of owning the new solution or project, leaves his employees without a clear direction since the team isn’t involved in the larger conversation. Without this understanding, makeshift processes will build up around the decision to meet the real requirements. Operations will slow to a crawl and fractures in productivity will be rampant.

A good method to responsibly use Disagree and Commit is to encourage healthy discussion at the team level. If the team flounders, it is the manager’s responsibility to step in, get them on track and, if need be, make the decision. This gives everyone the confidence to define the best strategy and go forward with little or no regrets. Leave Top Down Management in your back pocket just for those instances when your employees need to focus on something intensely and just get it done. If a staff member lacks the confidence to complete a project, get involved and mentor the person to success.