One of the difficult aspects of leadership that many leaders experience happens when they are given a direction that they don’t believe in. Almost every leader has a manager of their own, meaning they need to follow orders sometimes, too.
Following orders and leading a team doing something you don’t believe in is hard work. Often it’s not just you that will struggle. It’s also your team, who will need to do the work to make it happen.
Balancing Credibility, Respect and Following Orders
When you’ve been given a direction you don’t believe in, you are in a difficult situation.
Perhaps following orders would cause negative consequences for your team. Or maybe, you’ve had previous experience that has shown you there is a better way. Perhaps your leaders haven’t considered the risks and impacts of what they’ve decided, or done appropriate planning.
And if you happen to lead a team of intelligent, savvy people, you may find they don’t agree with the direction either. Your team is looking at you, to see how you will respond.
So you have a choice.
Option 1: Taking the Corporate Line and Following Orders
You can stand in front of your team and tell them that “This is the way we’re going, it’s the best way forward”. Unfortunately, if your team members don’t agree, your credibility may take a hit because it looks like you’re just taking the “corporate line” and following orders.
You’re the boss of your team, so what does it matter? Well it matters, because your team may lose trust in your judgement, which will make leading them harder over the long term.
In the worst cases, you may even seem delusional because you think it’s a good idea, and your team may wonder what you ate at lunch to cause your brain to take a holiday.
Option 2: Open Disagreement
You can tell your team “This is a stupid idea and I don’t agree with it, but this is what we’ve been told to do, so we just need to get on with it.”
This is a risky option.
On the one hand, your team may agree with your assessment and have respect for you for voicing it, because you’re being honest with them.
On the other hand, by saying this, you’re showing a lot of disrespect for your own leaders.
Behind closed doors this might be OK, but it’s generally not a good idea to do this in front of your team, because you may look like you’re a rogue agent who is going against the grain.
In addition, you are undermining your own manager and letting your team know that you don’t respect them.
Option 3: Balancing in the Middle
In this option, you might tell your team that “There are some challenges with the approach that has been directed, but we’ll need to make the best of it.”
But are you setting a bad example by highlighting the challenges? Should you just keep quiet about them and pretend it’s OK?
Or perhaps, you’ll say “This isn’t what I would have chosen to do, but we’ll need to push forward with it.”
Hold on a minute … you’ve just shown disagreement with your manager in front of your team. Is that a good idea?
Maybe we’ll try “I can see the logic in this direction, but it does have some challenges that we’ll need to work through.”
That sounds OK. Doesn’t it?
As you can see, when given a directive you don’t agree with, it’s tricky. You want to maintain your own leadership credibility while being careful not to throw your leaders under the bus and set a bad example for your team.
Not an easy thing to do!
Your Leadership Motivation Will Guide Your Response
It’s natural that individual leaders will have different motivations for taking on their leadership roles. Some people are motivated by the status and power that the role brings. Others are more interested in the money, since leadership roles often pay more than the roles that involve the “doing”.
Leaders need to choose how they will respond when faced with a direction they disagree with. For leaders motivated by power, status or money, this choice could be easy.
They may choose to just “go with the flow”, to please their managers and maximise the chances of keeping their jobs and being perceived as good “team players”.
However, if a direction would cause them to lose political points or reduce their status, these leaders may respond negatively and openly show their disagreement with the direction.
For leaders motivated by developing their people, “making a difference” and improving their organisation, following orders they disagree with is often much harder.
These leaders are probably people like you, as I’ve found that most of my readers are those that care about their people and making a positive difference, more than money, power and status.
When faced with a direction they disagree with, people-focus leaders will feel most challenged. They will try to balance supporting their own senior management with maintaining their credibility when working with their teams.
The Stress of Following Orders When You Don’t Believe
When you find yourself following orders you don’t agree with, you’ll experience stress, in the form of what is called Cognitive Dissonance, or when “beliefs run counter to your behaviours”.
It’s the same type of stress that shop assistants feel, when they are dealing with a difficult customer.
In their mind, they are thinking “You are an idiot, please go away”, but their behaviour needs to say “How can I help you today?”
The same is true when leaders are forced to follow a path they don’t believe in.
This may force leaders to try to change their beliefs, by seeking out information that reinforces the direction given. In other words, to convince themselves that they really do believe.
Or, a leader may focus more on other aspects of their role that bring them satisfaction, believing that they are “balancing the scales”. That is, even though they are following a poor direction, they are also doing other things to help their team at the same time.
Lastly, a leader struggling with the direction given may openly disagree with it and follow the direction they actually believe is best. This reduces the mental stress of doing something you disagree with, but it has a whole new set of problems that arise when you fight against the direction from your manager.
Trying to solve this situation causes stress and mental fatigue. Over time, leaders who are consistently in a state of cognitive dissonance may become angry or resentful of their situation, eventually leading to reduced motivation levels and unhappiness.
What You Can Do When Faced With a Direction You Disagree With
This is never a pleasant situation, but there are things we can do to improve it. After all, leadership wasn’t meant to be easy was it?
Here are some things to try, when faced with a direction you disagree with.
1. Influence the Direction Given
The first thing to try is to influence your leaders regarding the direction given. Hopefully, they consult with you as part of the decision-making, which gives you an opportunity to do this. If not, you may need to try to influence after the direction has been confirmed, which can be more difficult.
Keep in mind that just because your leaders have given a direction you don’t agree with, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are being deceitful or malicious. They simply may not know the potential impacts, or may not have considered the risks.
Start by raising your concerns and any risks that you believe may not have been considered. Doing this is best when you think about the “What’s in it for me?” for your manager. In other words, if you frame the issues in a way that they care about, you’re more likely to make an impact.
You may also suggest an alternative approach that would result in a similar result, without some of the negative consequences. Most leaders would be receptive to such a conversation, because it minimises the risk, while still getting the result they want.
If you need some help, you might also try influencing your colleagues to speak up. They can help by lending their weight to your cause too.
2. Get More Information and Look For the Silver Lining
When you disagree with a directive, it can be easy to become angry and resentful.
So, another thing you can try is to ask for more information and look hard for any benefits associated with the direction given.
This will give you some positive aspects to communicate to your team, even if you disagree with parts of the direction.
It may also reduce the feelings of conflict and cognitive dissonance that you feel, because you’ve found something positive in the situation.
You may even learn more about the direction, which opens your mind to circumstances that you weren’t aware of. If a change has been imposed on you from above, it may not be all bad. If you can find some silver lining, you and your team will start to feel more positive about it.
Sometimes, even making a change that is not perfect is better than no change at all. It demonstrates some progress and helps people understand that change is possible.
3. Disagree and Disobey
This one is the nuclear option. In this option, you might choose to put your job on the line and say you won’t do what has been directed.
This is usually the option of last resort, when you realise that following orders would cause you to lose respect and credibility as a leader. Or, you might choose this option when you have been directed to do something unethical, illegal or immoral.
What this option does do is signal to your leadership that you’re serious. And they really have no choice but to act. They either have to get rid of you, put you on the sidelines, or go back and review their direction.
Leaders who have nothing to lose, or have reached the end of their patience may choose this one.
4. Know Your Limits
If you’re in a position where you’re being forced to go in one direction, when you think there is a better way, it’s time to take stock.
What are your boundaries? When does it stop being acceptable?
When you and your manager are not aligned in the best way to do things, is this OK? Or does it happen far too often?
Maybe your disagreements are about minor matters. Or perhaps they are bigger than that.
The question is, are you willing to continue balancing your credibility with your team with toeing the company line? Or is it time to say “enough is enough”?
Only you can make that call.
Don’t Fall Into the Resilience Trap
Someone might tell you that you need to be more “resilient”. In other words, you just need to put up with it. However, resilience is a buzzword that we use far too often these days.
In my view, leaders ask for more resilience from their teams as a shortcut. Instead of asking people to be more resilient, we should be working to create better workplace conditions that help people thrive, without burning them out.
Resilience in the workplace is not about putting up with bad conditions for a long time. It’s about persevering to overcome short to medium-term challenges.
Putting up with poor workplace conditions and bad leadership for years simply makes you a victim.
So, that question again.
Is it time to say “enough is enough”?
How do you handle it when leading a team when you don’t believe in the direction you’ve been given? Leave a comment and tell us your story!