Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

Justifying Stupidity

Every company has something stupid.  A stupid process.  A stupid product.  A stupid marketing campaign.  Every company makes stupid decisions, at times.  As a manager, dealing with the stupid, and how you manage the stupidity with your team, is a crucial task that is often overlooked.

There's one school of thought that says: "Buy in or get out".  In other words, as an executive, I either have to buy in to the vision the company, product, process, campaign, or executive has made or I should pack up and walk away.  I do believe this is crucial: if I don't agree with a decision, product, campaign, etc, then bad-mouthing it to everyone who listens will just undermine the company, and their opinion of me, so if I want to keep working with the company I should be able to accept a decision (even if I don't agree with it at all) and give it the support it needs to succeed.  Who knows...maybe I was wrong!  So I do agree with the "Buy in or get out" philosophy but with one major caveat: be intelligent and reasonable.

I've often walked into companies and had my engineering team come to me and say "this product is stupid" (or "doesn't work", "was designed wrong", "could be better", or any dozen similar things) and I can then look at it and agree with them or disagree.  There's no sense telling my team of professional engineers "No, I think this is wonderful" when I know it isn't.  That would just convince my team I was either stupid or foolish, and I'd lose their respect.  Or sometimes it's a process that is at fault: it is slow, awkward, cumbersome, difficult, or some other problem.  Sure, it's been "working" for a long time and that's why no one has "fixed it" yet, but that doesn't mean it's good!  Being able to analyze and decide on such products and processes is part of my job.  Being able to communicate with the team my impressions of that product or process is also part of my job.  And letting them know I think something's stupid is part of the task.  I'll get a lot more respect from my engineers if, after complaining about something to me, I tell them "let me look at it and I'll get back to you" and then a bit later can say "Yep, you're right....it's screwed up so let's fix it" (or maybe, in rare cases, "Actually, it's OK, and here's why..."). 

I always prefer to be open and honest with my teams, and let them have a 360 feedback circle with me.  That means I should be able to talk to them about just about anything, and why the company is doing such and such (there are exceptions, of course), and they should be able to come to me and express their thoughts without any fear of my jumping down their throats.  Given time, this always leads to mutual respect.  Sure, in every team there are people with funny ideas about the best way to design a product or process, but that doesn't mean those people don't deserve respect.  And they should feel the same about me:  just because I represent the executive layer of a company to my team doesn't mean I can't be open, honest, and critical (in the right way).

The most important message I have to any team is simple: I won't bullshit you and I won't try to fool you.  If something is bad, I'll say so.  If something is stupid, I'll say so.  If I have no choice but to accept the situation, I'll explain it to you.  That approach has always lead to better openness and honesty in my teams, and that's why my teams are loyal, productive and efficient.  You can't justify stupid.  So why try?