Pressure-to-Produce Distorts the Decision-Process

At some point, the Boeing 737 Max situation will be taught in b-schools as a case on ethics, decision-making, and leadership. For now, the situation is playing out via congressional testimony and the news media.

On the surface, it doesn’t look great for Boeing. There are more than a few smoking guns (internal e-mails and texts) suggesting a culture emerged that eschewed safety concerns raised by employees in favor of controlling costs, accelerating approval, and maintaining aggressive production schedules.

If it turns out to be true that these pressures connect to decisions that moved away from goodness (life safety), the responsibility for the sad loss of 346 lives will land squarely in the laps of Boeing’s managers.

We’ll see.

It’s Common for Managers to Feel Pressure to Take Shortcuts

While life-safety may not be at stake in many cases, the pressure-to-produce pushed by top management and brought to bear in middle-management and their project teams is a genuine, powerful, and dangerous force.

As a manager, how do you fight back against the pressure to take questionable shortcuts and to make poor decisions?

Push back too hard against the prevailing direction from on high, and you are risking your job or at least your credibility and career prospects in the firm.

Ignore it, and well, you’re risking taking a step down a slippery slope of personal ethics and values from which there is no easy return.

Six Ideas for Navigating the Pressure to Implement a Bad Decision

1. Resist Your Emotional Response

The in-the-moment reaction to what you perceive is an organization, or stakeholder-impacting bad decision is often anger. Unfortunately, anger and emotional appeals are not useful–at least initially in these situations.

The right response is to work with the tools and resources at your disposal to attempt to alter the approach to one less potentially damaging. Here are ideas you can use in situations where you are navigating someone’s decision to take a shortcut when the potential consequences are severe.

(Note: follow your firm’s guidelines for reporting ethical violations, legal issues, or harassment. I’m focused here on business issues that carry potential adverse consequences for customers, suppliers, or the firm.)

2. Engage Your Team

Drawing upon neutral framing, present the situation, and ask for the team’s perspective. If the group members come to the same conclusion as you, it’s time to gain their help in identifying alternatives that mitigate the potential risks of management’s direction while striving to achieve their interests—typically, time and cost.

If they develop viable alternatives or, if their options mitigate the risk but change the time or cost formula, it’s time to engage your boss.

3. Discuss the Situation with Your Boss

Yes, your boss might be the one applying the pressure, however, most individuals don’t want to be ultimately responsible for precipitating big problems for customers, or for ending up placing the firm in the public eye. It’s time to attempt to gain your boss’s support by making a case for moving away from the approach being foisted on the two of you.

Focus on carefully framing the issue in terms of pros and cons to the business and stakeholders.

Your well-constructed message (use a message map!) will showcase the high-costs in the long-term of a poor decision now. If these costs include an impact on the firm’s reputation and potentially a public relations crisis, emphasize your concern over the negative implications.

Give your boss the power to work through this without feeling threatened by you. Use careful framing. For example, “You can see the potential risks to our firm from this approach. They outweigh the short-term gains. How do you want to proceed in gaining support to go in another direction?

As needed, make sure to reiterate your team’s view of the potentially wrong direction and their support for a pivot back to a better decision. Share the team’s ideas and alternative approaches. Sometimes, all your boss needs is a life ring in the form of a good alternative.

I’ve known managers who would respond favorably to this approach. I’ve also encountered more than a few who lack the courage to challenge a decision from on high. If your manager is just a bit wobbly on what to do, it is appropriate to suggest bouncing the issue around with peer groups. Take the lead on this.

4. Look to Your Peers for Support

While we view decision-making as a hierarchical process, in reality, most decisions in organizations are made horizontally. Your peers are an authoritative source of input and support. They also individually and collectively are a source of power.

In one organization, a manager concerned about a critical design decision she viewed as a flaw that would adversely impact customers and ultimately, the firm’s reputation took the issue to her peers. Using the neutral framing situation above, she engaged them individually and in group settings to evaluate the design decision, identify implications, and develop options. Once she gained widespread support, she leveraged this in a management meeting—again drawing upon careful framing—to help sway the direction to an approach deemed safer for all involved.

In another setting, a manager horrified at the program he was asked to implement focused on uncovering the individual who was best able to influence a change for the better. He networked across this large organization until he met the responsible marketing manager. After learning of the marketing manager’s desired results, he was able to offer an alternative that achieved those, without all the negatives associated with the initial decision.

5. Use Your Firm’s Reporting Mechanism

I’ve observed firms where the whistleblower process is sacred and others where it’s a blind, dead-end alley. Again, if your issue is to keep your firm from taking an approach that has dire consequences for stakeholders, and prior attempts have failed to gain support, this remains an option. You will learn a great deal about the character and values of your firm and top management based on how your complaint is handled. And yes, every action you take to fight pressure from on high is potentially risky.

6. If It’s Important Enough, Aim High

I know the health warning is obvious—this approach is risky to you. But remember, you have to live with yourself and the implications of your decisions and activities. If you believe the organization is making a dire mistake and prior attempts to alter or eliminate the mistake have failed, run the issue as high up the organizational chart as you can, including the CEO.

In this era of everyone-knows-bad-news-instantly, few top executives are willing to risk ending up in front of a congressional committee on national television or, to lose credibility and damage the brand by openly advocating an approach that devalues the firm and damages its reputation with stakeholders.

You might be alone, and your notification might have longer-range adverse consequences for you, but that’s the price of maintaining your integrity.

In one situation, a manager who had exhausted other options for recourse on what she perceived was a terrible decision with major consequences for the firm, approached the CEO, and shared her concerns. When the CEO asked how she would handle it, the manager was prepared with an answer. Fortunately, in this case, the CEO valued candor and courage and got involved to support changing the direction.

The Bottom-Line for Now

Manage long enough, and you’ll face more than a few situations that challenge your courage. It’s easy for others to rationalize taking a step into the gray-zone when the pressure is on to produce. It’s your job to fight for the right approach with all of the tools at your disposal. It’s risky, uncomfortable, and it’s the right thing to do.

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