“You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I beat you with until you understand who’s in ruttin’ command!”
–Jayne Cobb, Firefly
I learn a lot of things–scratch that, most things–the hard way. Such was the case with office protocol. I worked at the front desk of one of the Walt Disney World Resort hotels. I had a guess situation that I have since forgotten. What I do remember is that I had a solution for their situation, but my manager disagreed with me and would not approve it.
I was in my early 20s at the time, and I knew enough about how the system worked to understand that the Big Boss had the authority to overrule my manager. What I did not understand were the consequences of going over the boss’s head to get my way.
The result? [You saw this coming, right?] I did not get my way. In my rather direct manner, I called the Resident Manager, who answered via speaker phone. I explained the situation as I saw it and why I thought my manager was wrong. Not only did I get a “no,” but my manager was actually in the room as I spoke, and she let me know that she was not pleased with my actions. I still blush thinking about it, and I owed (and probably still owe) that manager a serious apology.
I had learned, very much the hard way, how foolish it can be to disrupt the chain of command.
Okay, so if going directly over your boss’s head is a Bad Thing, what would be a more appropriate method of handling that situation? My 20-years-later suggestions are below.
- First, think hard about the situation at hand. How important is it that you get your way? Is it a personal matter (say, a leave request)? A matter of content wording or correctness? A problem with whether someone is following office procedure? An ethical or legal issue? My first recommendation is that you save your “override” requests for major issues, meaning those issues that have imminent negative impacts for the company or client–financial, legal, political, public relations, etc. You might choose to fight every issue, but that will not make your future professional life easier.
- If you decide to go ahead and move things up the chain (“escalate” is the word I hear most often), start by making your appeal in person, first with your immediate supervisor, and then to his/her manager with your immediate supervisor present. Or, if you’re uncomfortable with that, at least have the courtesy to inform your immediate supervisor of your concerns and that you would like to take them up with someone further up the chain. Telephone or email communications can very easily be misinterpreted or perceived as passive-aggressive. And in any case, if you’re going to overrule your boss, you should have the nerve to look him or her in the eye when you do so.
- Maintain your calm. If you raise your voice unnecessarily or get rude or argumentative at any point, you run the risk of being disregarded or being perceived as temperamental.
- Argue in a way that will make sense to the ssytem. I am not saying don’t fight the system. I am suggesting that you understand how the system works, and for the most part, the system doesn’t like troublemakers. However,if you can make a solid case for why your point of view should prevail, you stand a good chance of winning. How does one win an argument with the boss? Usually by showing that their course of action would negatively impact something they care about, like the customer’s opinion of the company, the bottom line, or the program schedule. So before you try to make that case, you’d have to ask yourself–can you?
Again, fighting the system is not impossible. Escalation is not always inadvisable. I can recall successfully convincing the same manager I previously irritated to change an office procedure because it would have negatively impacted guest operations. However, give the matter some thought before you take something over your boss’s head. If your case is good, chances are you won’t have to escalate things in the first place, or you might get your supervisor to be an advocate in your cause. Things to think about as you contemplate your Monday.