columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I'm a unit head at a government agency that is having some serious financial and managerial turmoil. The powers that be are contemplating a decision that could have a very negative impact on my area, and our manager called all his units to discuss the issue. He explained the case he would make, but also said repeatedly, "I'll do my best, but you know that the boss will end up doing whatever the boss wants, and there's nothing I can really do to stop it." Which is historically true, but was also incredibly demoralizing to hear.

This got me thinking about what to tell my unit about this situation, or similar ones in the future. There's got to be a better way to say that you'll fight for them, right? And if you lose the fight, how do you communicate that to your team without making them bitter about upper administration?

Green responds:

Ugh, yeah, your manager mishandled this.

When you're a manager, you're part of your organization's management team, and part of your job is to represent that team to your staff, even when you don't agree with its decisions.

That doesn't mean that you have to become a Stepford Wife who smiles blankly and spouts a bland, rehearsed party line. But it does mean that you need to talk about management decisions with respect, and to the extent that you can, help your team understand the reasoning for them. Presenting the people above you as volatile, mystifying, or inept undermines them and will destroy your own bosses' trust in you if they find out that you're doing it. It'll also create resentment and some serious cynicism on your team, and that will impact your own effectiveness in the long run.

In this case, it would have been better for your boss to have said something like, "I'm going to stress our concerns about X and Y and will especially emphasize Z, but there are other factors that the agency will have to consider as well, and it's possible that those could end up trumping our concerns. If that happens, I'll be thinking about A, B, and C to try to mitigate the impact on us. I expect to hear something definitive by the end of next month, and I'll keep you posted."

And then, if the ultimate decision does go against your team, your manager would ideally explain the other factors that ended up being considered more important. And he can acknowledge that that sucks for your team at the same time that he acknowledges that the organization had to factor in considerations beyond that.

One caveat to all this: There are cases where it's so widely understood that a higher-up is out of her gourd or that a policy has no redeeming value that you'll lose credibility if you don't acknowledge that. Even then, though, the way you talk about it matters: Calm and matter-of-fact, yes. Openly disgusted, no.

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