Have Backbone, Disagree and Commit

We’ve decided to adopt Amazon’s Leadership Principles at Control4. For a while we debated creating our own, or modifying Amazon’s, but in the end we decided just running with Amazon’s as-is would work best.

Last week I sent a mail to my org pointing out some bar-raising behaviors for “Hire and Develop the Best”. I got several replies from employees encouraging me to share more ‘tips’ on LPs. So I’ve added a reminder to my calendar to write an internal blog post each week. This week I wrote a post on what it means to Have Backbone, Disagree and Commit.

Photo credit Kai Schreiber

After posting it, I decided to share it here too. So here you go.

The actual Leadership Principle reads:

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

This Leadership Principle actually combines two principles that go hand-in-hand. First there’s the “Have Backbone” part and then the part about disagreeing, but committing anyway.

Having backbone: We all find ourselves in situations where we don’t fully agree with a proposed plan. In these cases, we should think like an owner (see the Ownership LP) and argue (ideally with data and strong anecdotes) our point. If we are unable to affect the decision, the next step is to meet with other stakeholders. We need to ask questions so we truly understand the problem and be open to the possibility that we may not have all of the information that went into the decision (e.g. highly confidential info). We must listen to the other stakeholders’ points of view and share ours openly and respectfully.

After considering the data and other points of view, if we still have concerns, we can escalate. Deciding whether to escalate or not should be what I call ‘a highly considered decision’. Over escalating is a sure way to demonstrate we have poor judgement (we’re not Right A Lot). We escalate only if we truly feel the decision is not in the best interests of the company. We use data, facts, and strong anecdotes to support our opinions before we escalate. Escalations are not effective unless they include alternate proposals; we must be solution-oriented.

It’s hard to know when to give in. This is what good judgement and wisdom are
all about (see the LP Are Right A Lot). Sometimes you just need to fold like a cheap lawn chair. Other times you need to keep fighting. The trick is getting good at judging the situation. I wrote a blog post long ago titled “90% of the decisions you make don’t matter” that might help you figure out whether to “stand or fold”.

But once a decision is made by the group, we are all expected to support it wholeheartedly and commit 100%.

This is where Disagree and Commit comes into play. D&C is what happens after a decision has been made. Even if we originally disagreed (and may still disagree) we all get behind the plan and commit to it.

People who raise the bar for Disagree and Commit openly show support and commitment to the plan, even though they may not have originally been aligned with it. They avoid statements like “I’m only doing this because I was told to”, “I did not agree with this and tried my best to convince folks otherwise”, or “management said”. They regularly get everyone aligned with the decision and then re-enforce their commitment to the plan (even if they still disagree).

Disagree and Commit applies to everyone, including individual contributors and
managers. Exhibiting this principle is particularly important for people managers because they are responsible for effectively communicating and streamlining information from their team to upper management and vice-versa. As a result, you need to be cognizant of how you communicate these decisions to your team. As a people manager, what you say or write, carries additional weight and it is your responsibility to exhibit conviction in your communication. If you don’t disagree and commit, your employees will lose trust in you and won’t execute effectively.

If you have questions or comments about this topic, please feel free comment below.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

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