Toeing the line in public

One Friday, many years ago when I was working with a web agency, one of our designers sent round a company-wide email. This was before the days of Slack, and an all-company email was rare. In the mail the designer told how he and a salesperson had visited a client that day for a pitch. In the taxi on the way there the salesperson made it clear that he was unhappy with the proposed designs, and thought they’d failed to capture what was needed. But when it came to presenting to the client the salesperson was full of enthusiasm, pointing out the “freshness” and “originality” of the designs, and referencing how hard the designer had worked for the client.

You might draw some negatives from this, but the purpose of the email was clear. The designer was full of admiration for the salesperson, who was clearly showing a united front despite his personal reservations. He wanted everyone to know how impressed he was with his colleague, who had put his personal feelings to one side for the good of the pitch team and the company.

There are times when I’ve needed to carry out some idea or policy that I’ve been unhappy with. I’ve done this knowing that the time for argument has passed, and any open dissent now will only disrupt things and have an overall negative impact. I’ve always trusted that this is the right thing to do for the team and the organisation, even though it’s not ideal.

Once I experienced it from the other side when I worked at a small software house. After one of our three testers handed in their notice, I had refused to hire a replacement, arguing that we needed to use it as an opportunity to dramatically increase our automated test coverage, and make automated testing much more part of our working lives. There was some grumbling, but it was quickly accepted. It was only much, much later that the most senior engineer told me privately just how much he thought I was wrong. In fact, he said, he thought I was “mad”. I had depended on that engineer greatly during a very challenging period, and he was very influential within the team. I always had enormous respect for him, but that respect grew even more after he told me this—he could have dissented in public, but chose not to. And I reflected how much more difficult my job would have been if he had done so. He wasn’t just a talented engineer; he had great strength of character, too.

This is sometimes called “disagree and commit”. It’s fine to argue a point, but once a decision has made it’s important to stick to it for the sake of moving forward. It’s not always easy to do, but I’ve appreciated those who do it, especially as it’s often so difficult and important to make progress.

Photo by John K Thorne