Friday, August 22, 2008


(August 21) Deliberative bodies in this region seem doomed to repeat the same basic mistake. Faced with a difficult decision, a hot potato likely to create a shower of heated spudly agitation, they decide to obfuscate, to avoid giving information or explanation.

It’s an understandable impulse. If you know the news you’re about to deliver will cause dismay or anger, you may want to postpone delivering that news as long as possible. Nobody wants to go through the drama of argument and agitation that accompanies difficult moments. People break up by letter, hide their report cards, “forget” to mention the bounced check until the spousal unit is on the way to work.

But this kind of obfuscatory bobbing and weaving is not helpful in the grown-up world. It makes for bad management and bad government.

I’m not talking about a moral imperative or idealistic set of Proper Rules. I’m talking about practicality; if you are a manager or a government official or a school board member, being a good manager also means reducing the amount of agitation directed at you.

When you have to make a decision that affects people’s work and/or lives, there’s no doubt that some folks will be upset. But you can’t avoid that, and trying to avoid it only makes things worse.

A certain percentage of folks will be okay (or just won’t care much). Another group will back the bosses no matter what. And another group will be really angry. Nothing you do will change the folks in those three groups much. But there is a fourth group, the largest group, that could become supporters or opponents depending on how you handle matters. These swing voters can make a big difference in the tone of public reaction.

When you have to make a tough call, a controversial call, swing voters want to know a couple of things.

First, they want to know how you made the decision. What were your criteria? Did you look for the contractor with the best price, the fastest tractor, or the cutest owner? Once you selected the yardstick for your decision, what were the facts that you gathered, and how did they line up with your criteria?

People want to know that you had a reason for your choice and that you followed some process more complex than flipping a coin or picking whatever made things easiest for you.

If you don’t tell the people how you made the decision, they will guess. They will rarely guess, “Although the process is apparently a secret, I’m sure it’s wise and fair and honest.” They won’t guess that because it’s hard to imagine a wise, fair and honest process that needs to be kept secret.

Second, they want to know that you heard and understood their feelings about the issue. Some bosses appear pathologically terrified of listening, as if the mere act of hearing a different point of view will somehow destroy their position.

Listening is a powerful tool. People want to be heard. If they don’t feel they’ve been heard when they are speaking, they will keep raising their voices until they are hollering. By that time, they’re angry, too.

Our deliberative bodies, our boards and bosses, only need to be able to say, “We understand what you’re telling us. But here’s what we’ve decided, and here’s why.”

Admittedly, this is a hard position to take if you are a governing body that has not done its homework. If you don’t have a good reason for a particular course of action, it’s pretty hard to make a public case for it.

But in Venangoland, we specialize in making what may be correct decisions in the worst possible way. Leaders who are afraid of facing the anger of a few people end up stirring up ten times as many irate citizens, taxpayers, and employees. (Insert usual references to hospital mess here.)

Economic realities will keep forcing tough decisions. The folks who have to make these decisions don’t have the option of choices that will make everyone happy, but they do have some control over just how many cranky people they will have to face.

You may have a lawyer working for you advising you not explain anything to anyone; the lawyer’s responsibility is not to make sure you’re doing your job, but to make sure you don’t get yourself in trouble. When you’re making decisions, talking can get you in trouble. But it may be trouble that you’ve earned. And not talking will create even more.


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to tell you how much I have enjoyed reading your posts of late. This is another great one. Thanks.

Condatis said...

Do you take tips? :)

OMiGosh. You have no idea how much you just described me, the 'swing' section.

Right now, as much as I love this area, I want to run away to Grove City or somewhere. My new VenangoLand friends think I'm kidding.

While I worked here during the hospital debacle, I didn't have time much to think about it and wasn't living here yet.

The 7th St. issue is my first real taste with mmmmmmmmmmm. I can't type that here. Nevermind.

Aggravating isn't even word enough.

I have to thank you for making me laugh and giving me a lesson in expressing one's self well even when aggravated past the point of shouting :)

Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful post to have read. I'm grateful that I took the time to read it.

I can see how people would take this into only Venango County and it's current issues, but the whole time I was reading this I was thinking about large companies and presidents trying to get away with things. This really helped me to realize that sometimes you can't make everyone happy you have to settle with who you make happy. However, making the majrity happiest will help to die down the minority. Thank you. This will be quite helpful to me and how I explain things from now on.

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