Conflicting Orders—Refuse the Project

September 11, 2017

Conflicting Orders—Refuse the Project

In the last post, you asked your boss Sean’s permission to go ahead with a cross-silo project. He was either angry or gave you a chance. Problem is you don’t know which one it will be before the fact. Wouldn’t it be best to avoid undertaking the project completely, given you know that Sean is lukewarm to the idea?

What kind of risk are you taking?

You presumably know Sean to some extent. You’ve seen his reaction in other situations. Does he fly off the handle when things don’t go his way, or stay calm? Does he allow push-back on his orders, or do you know not to question him?

These and other indicators can give you some predictive power on his reaction to broaching the cross-silo project. Pay attention.

Should you assume the worst?

If, after this assessment, you’re pretty sure that he’ll go ballistic, you’d be wise to keep your head down. But what if the risk doesn’t seem so extreme? What if he might go for it?

In this case, I’d encourage asking, not just for the sake of the project. Being afraid to even raise an issue can lead to an unhealthy environment where you tip-toe around, trying to read your boss’ mind. Did he look grumpy when he came in this morning? Did he avoid eye contact because he’s mad at you?

Eventually you spook yourself into thinking that the best risk is no risk. Not always or even frequently true.

How come you ended up with this problem?

It may feel as if you stepped into it without knowing there was something you needed to avoid. You have run into the conundrum of company hierarchy.

The CEO might be serious about this cross-silo thing or she might be saying it just to look good and progressive (more prevalent at the CEO level than anyone would hope for). From just one speech, you don’t know which is which and, more importantly, neither does Sean or his boss.

Experienced managers often take a CEO’s pronouncements with a grain of salt. They may have seen smoke blowing from other senior managers or even this CEO. They know to wait to see if the CEO takes any concrete actions to support cross-silo initiatives.

For example, does she ease up on headcount so that managers can hire temporary employees to replace those on cross-silo initiatives? Does she lower productivity targets so that there’s more slack in the system to undertake them? Does she consult the managers on how to move forward?

Sean and the other managers are making sure that the CEO is committed before rejiggering their operations to fit. This attitude makes it both possible for the company to continue running well, and incredibly difficult to actually make a change if the CEO is indeed serious.

In all of this, you’re kind of the meat in the sandwich. The CEO is telling you one thing and your boss is telling you another. What do you do?

Unless cross-silo thing is a hill to die on for you (and I can’t imagine why it would be), I’d listen to the person who has the most direct influence on your career and immediate work environment. Will the CEO come down from Mount Olympus to do that for you? Stick with Sean.


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