Sunday, 21 August 2011

What The West Wing can teach middle managers

There's a great scene in The West Wing (in season 4, the episode called Holy Night) where a new speech writer, Will Bailey has been hired. The President has looked over his first speech and has given him some notes. Will doesn't agree with one of them and raises it with his boss Toby Ziegler.

But then he is given the opportunity to say it directly to the President and, overcome with nerves, he stutters and stammers. Toby reviews Will's work with the President, in Will's earshot, and defends him saying: 'he caught the bad note'. Will asks Toby what he meant and Toby reveals that the President had written the bad note on purpose, to see how comfortable Will would feel about 'telling truth to power'. Will kicks himself for not having the courage to speak up.

It occurred to me that working life is often like that for middle managers. We are often put in positions where we can anticipate the negative impact of a senior management decision, we disagree with a line that is being taken or that we feel senior managers are not demonstrating the values that they expect from the rest of the organisation.

It takes a great deal of courage - and a culture of openness and honesty - to be able to tell truth to power. It's much easier to nod along or to say what we know our bosses want to hear; much more challenging to constructively and respectfully disagree or call someone on their behaviour.

But that's what we must do and, indeed, is what senior managers want us to do. In organisations, decisions often have to be made quickly, under extreme pressure, and hearing all points of view strengthens that decision making, protecting the organisation. If we absolve ourselves from telling truth to power, the organisation, our customers and our integrity will suffer.

(The clip above shows Will first meeting the President, not the scene with the bad note, but from Will's reaction, you get the idea.)

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