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Your team is not a democracy

TLDR: During a difficult team discussion, holding an impromptu vote to resolve the issue is rarely the right move. Trust your team but, as the manager, you may have critical information that your team does not and you are ultimately responsible. It is OK to make decisions that go against the majority view.


Imagine you are a manager on a team. The team is debating a thorny issue. There is disagreement on the best way to move forward and someone suggests putting it to a vote. As the manager, should you let the majority decide?

My own personal take is that as a manager, putting it to a vote is rarely the right move.

It is certainly your duty to stimulate debate. Encourage everyone to speak up, and ensure anyone who can’t seem to get a word in is given space. You should challenge the team into creative and out-of-the box thinking.

Ultimately you, as the leader of the team, need to make the call however. Why?


You may have critical information your team does not

First and foremost, you as the manager may have information critical to the decision that your team does not. While a fully transparent environment is ideal, where all information is shared across the whole team*, it is not always possible. An example might include incoming work or commitments that haven’t been shared with the broader team yet, such as one involving confidential customer negotiations. Another example might be upcoming team changes that have’t been broadly shared yet, such as a reorganization, layoffs, or someone on a Performance Improvement Plan.


Spontaneous votes can be risky

Second, people may hastily suggest a vote out of impatience, frustration or for the noble reason of letting the team decide. But spontaneously putting it to a vote risks key stakeholders not being present. Examples of stakeholders include design, product management, infrastructure, and quality teams, not to mention other supporting functions such as marketing and legal. A decision without all required input is not likely to yield success.


You as manager are ultimately responsible

Finally, you as manager ultimately need to make difficult decisions, because you as manager are ultimately responsible, and will be held accountable for the results. If your team does not deliver, the buck stops with you. Being a leader is hard. It sometimes involves making difficult and unpopular decisions. That is your job.


Overriding your team is the exception

I would be remiss not to point out that ignoring the will of your team is definitely the exception. Normally, the team can and should decide. When they are the domain experts and have all the information they need, let them at it. That is likely most of the time.

Sometimes an individual engineer will have the responsibility to make a decision, and to code, release and support the implementation. Sometimes, it will be the broader team. Either way, they should be able to articulate the reasons why they are choosing a given approach and the tradeoffs they are making, and be able to reasonably defend the choice.

Ultimately as the manager you could still override but that should happen infrequently.


Trust the team, but don’t shy away from difficult decisions

Wrapping up: Trust your team. Empower them to make the right decisions without you. But sometimes it is OK to make unpopular decisions and ask that your team trust you too.

When the decision is made, ask the team for their support and commitment, whether they like the decision or not, and move forward. That is, disagree and commit.


* To be clear, I am not suggesting that as a manager you do not share information freely. The Westrum organizational typology model, as discussed on the “Measuring and Changing Culture” chapter of the Accelerate book, defines pathological and power-oriented organizations as those in which information is hoarded or withheld for political reasons. On the other hand, a consequence (and predictor) of a good culture is trust, cooperation, and better information being available for making decisions. It is the latter that we should of course aspire too, but the reality is just that that is not always possible or fair to everyone involved.



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