Have Concerns And Commit

I lead a couple of teams. I could use a gut check on decision making. how do you convey a top down decision (a decision that you don’t buy in entirely) to your team? something other than “hey, leadership wants x, I see a, b, and c as potential pitfalls in x. I have conveyed my reservations. now it’s time to disagree and commit”

This question came in through our SaaSy question portal.

The topic of how to communicate top-down decisions that you disagree with is an important one. It’s important because the scenario is common and it’s bad if you get it wrong. If you regularly navigate these situations poorly, you can ruin your entire culture.

The short answer for how to communicate a situation where you need to disagree and commit is that you first need to engage appropriately with the decision, and then you can mostly just describe how you engaged with the process.

So, how do you engage properly with a decision that you don’t agree with? Let’s break down the kind of decisions you might encounter:

  • Non-material - it doesn’t matter, e.g. if we should do taco lunch on Tuesdays or Thursdays.
  • Material - it’s important, it’ll suck if we get it wrong, but it’s not the end of the world. This might be like a yearly plan that isn’t quite right, but isn’t terrible.
  • Critical - something really bad will happen if we get this wrong. The company’s trajectory will change. Like that time the Enron guys decided how to do creative accounting.

The summary of how to engage with these decisions is:

  • Non-material decisions: give feedback and move on. Debating unimportant issues wastes everyone’s time. If your leadership team truly whiffs on a ton of small stuff, give feedback to that effect. When you communicate to your team, explain that feedback is important but that you need to give your coworkers the grace to make decisions.
  • Material changes:
    • If you’re not sure of the answer but have concerns, you want to make sure that your feedback is deeply considered. You can tell your team that feedback was heard but ultimately the people with the most context made the call, which is how it should be.
    • If you’re absolutely sure the decision is wrong, you should really try to change the decision. We’ll talk more about this later, but you’re almost never going to actually be absolutely sure a decision is wrong.
  • Critical changes: if you don’t have enough information to know the right answer, again, make sure your feedback is heard. If you are absolutely sure things are headed in the wrong direction, you need to protest actively, and consider whether this is really a team that you want to remain on. But, remember - you’re almost never absolutely sure.
Non-material Material Critical
You think that a decision is wrong, but you're not certain No action Ensure your feedback is considered Ensure your feedback is considered
You're 100% certain a decision is wrong Let someone know Change the decision Quit

There are a lot of details to consider when determining how to handle a decision that you disagree with. Let’s explore some themes that show up in these situations.

You don’t have all the information for most decisions

A true moment of humility comes when you realize that almost all the decisions your leaders make are ones that you personally don’t have enough information to be sure are right or wrong. Your leadership chain has more information than you - often much more.

This context disparity exists in most hierarchical structures in an organization - mid-level managers know more than their team; high-level ICs have more context than others. This is by design - having every person have all the information all the time is wasteful.

As a result, you should ensure you have a healthy sense of humility when engaging with decisions. Show your team that you can be a strong leader while admitting you don’t know everything.

In fact, I don’t even really like the phrase “disagree and commit”. That phrase too often leads people to think they should be either agreeing or disagreeing with something. You should not agree or disagree with every decision. Agreement and disagreement are levels of certainty that require diligence - a bar to be crossed, not a box to check. This is yet another instance where you should stop making people make up their minds.

It’s much, much healthier to, for example, “have concerns and commit.” Some decisions you can agree with, some you can disagree with, but most you should either just “have concerns about” or “be supportive of”.

Getting leadership to enable you

As much as you have to be humble in your approach to engaging with decisions, healthy companies and leaders should provide you with enough information to be able to understand decisions in enough detail to have confidence in supporting the decision. Especially if you’re a VP+ role in a company < ~5000 people, you need to be able to fully support and explain the decisions being made. To do that, you need information.

One possible pattern you might run into is having a leadership team that leaves you in the dark too often. This leaves you having to engage more than you otherwise would to validate and understand decisions.

If you find this happening, explain the pattern to your leadership team. Good leaders should react and iterate on this feedback, understanding that informing you more creates efficiency and trust.

This is also a lesson you should remember for your own decisions. It’s surprisingly easy to miss providing sufficient context. It’s not uncommon to do 10 weeks of work to get a really great decision, be very confident you got it right, and then not explain it well enough. It can be frustrating - “you don’t understand, we did so much to be sure.”

You’re right, people don’t understand, because you didn’t help them understand.

Don’t let the diligence of your research convince you that you can short-change the delivery of a correct result.

Letting small stuff go

It’s critical that your team lets their coworkers do their job regularly without intense scrutiny on things that don’t really matter. Sometimes dissatisfied people use small mistakes as fodder for commiseration - we didn’t even get the All Hands timing right, how are we ever going to make major decisions? These people don’t know what they’re doing, who put them in charge?

You have to get people to understand that lots of stuff just doesn’t matter. You want leadership moving fast and being good-enough on small decisions. If you start sniping on every little thing, your distractions will be more of a problem than the things you’re complaining about.

It can also be valuable to explain how organizations work to your team. “Listen, if we complain about everything it’s going to be anarchy. I’ll lose my credibility if I’m taking every single hiccup to our CEO. We have to pick our moments and this just isn’t one of them.”

Don’t dismiss the wrong thing as a small thing

Don’t sweat the small stuff, but also don’t make the mistake of thinking something isn’t important when it is important. This is hard to do, but, then again, this is why you get paid the big bucks.

Examples include:

  • Engineering office spaces. Engineers commonly place disproportionate value on their office space compared to other vocations. Part of this is that engineers are often involved in deep, uninterrupted work in the same spot. Part of it is that engineers are more likely to be in that space at 12am managing an incident. In any case, it’s a common reality, and if you mistake an engineering office-space concern for a small thing, it will cause issues.
  • Compensation timing. Sometimes people might say things like “does it really matter if the bonus pays out a week in either direction?” The answer is yes, it does. It might not matter to you, but for many people in your organization that timing can be materially impactful to their life.

If you’re not sure if something is a big deal or not, ask people. Over time you should have a diverse network of people on your team that can be early-warning signal providers on most topics.

Forcing action on material and critical things

When things are really important and about to go wrong, you should worry less about disagreeing and committing and more about getting the right decision.

For material issues that you know are wrong, maybe once a year you have to be quite willful. If you’re actually right and your leadership team is any good, a reasonable amount of persistence, detailed advocacy, and explanation will help people understand the right decision. Often this will cause some people to be upset, and often times it’ll cause friction with your peers, but you’ve got to drive through that to make sure important things get the right outcome.

For critical issues, perhaps once every 5 years you need to really break the glass and say no. If you do this at a higher frequency, you’ll be labeled a troublemaker and someone who cries wolf. But every once in a while you have to say “I’m certain this is the wrong decision and moving in this direction is incompatible with me being on this team.”

Dealing with bad leaders

It’s reasonable to roughly keep track of whether certain leaders are consistently making good decisions. If someone is consistently making you disagree and commit to something stupid, one of you needs to go.

There are a few types of bad leaders - some are just wrong a lot, some just like to disagree, others are too happy to commit – they don’t take feedback OR they’re impulsive. Understanding which one you’re dealing with tells you how fixable or tenable the situation is.

If you have a bad leader that is consistently making wrong decisions, you or someone in your leadership chain needs to do something about it. You can’t tell your team that another leader is being performance managed, but you can say that performance management is handled properly at the leadership level, and if certain leaders are making consistently bad decisions, they will be accounted for in that process.

Owning outcomes as a leader

One of the things you absolutely should not do is regularly disagree with decisions and act like there is nothing you can do about it. There are a couple components to this:

  • Leaders who act helpless are helpless. Sometimes leaders admonish themselves by saying they couldn’t influence decisions. But if you can’t influence decisions, why are you our leader?
  • Leaders who regularly bash their leaders should find a new job. Ultimately, as a leader, you should only be at a company if you believe it is going to succeed. The minute you start acting fatalist, or like there are unsolvable problems that inhibit you from succeeding, you need to leave.

Leaders who regularly blame their leaders, offering no way of changing the situation, are how Culture Viruses and political behavior emerge.


In summary, communicating a disagree-and-commit situation is most effective when you’ve engaged well with the issue already. If you’ve engaged properly with a decision, you can simply communicate what you did.

More often than not, you shouldn’t be disagreeing at all, but instead having concerns about decisions. Having a culture of reasonable humility helps ensure people are understanding the nuance of decisions and reacting appropriately.

Here are some stock examples you can modify to use when describing various decisions you don’t totally agree with but have engaged with properly:

  • Small decisions
    • “I gave feedback about the soda selection but there are a lot of stakeholders and ultimately it’s something I trust our facilities team to manage.”
  • Material decisions
    • “I had my concerns about the widget strategy for next year and they were heard. I ultimately understand that the strategy is a combination of qualitative and quantitative and that the VP’s job is to balance those and make decisions. I trust my feedback was integrated.”
  • Bad leaders
    • You’d only say this in a one-on-one setting: “Listen I know you have concerns about some of the decisions that have been made recently. All I can tell you is that I have confidence in our ability to manage performance at every level, so if those decisions are part of a track record of underperformance, it will be handled appropriately.”