Management I'm the guy who's telling you the way it is

Mandate Dissection

In your quiver of management skills, you’ve got a couple of powerful arrows. There’s the annual review where you take the time to really explain, in detail, what a given employee needs to do to grow. That’s huge. That can be life changing. That’s a big arrow. How about the layoff? That’s when you get asked who stays and who goes. You’re going to lose some sleep when you’ve got to pull the bow back on that one.

A dog in a bagThen there’s the mandate. The mandate is when you gather the team together and calmly say, “This is the way it is.” No Q&A. No collaboration. It’s your dictate handed down from on high.

Most folks have learned to despise the mandate.

Rewind a few years back. I’m at my prior gig and we’ve just hired a new VP who, well, I really liked. This guy was sharp, experienced, had a litany of name brand companies on his resume, and he could tell a joke. Sold. Hired.

He was pretty quiet the first few weeks… checking out the landscape… sitting in on various meetings and listening. Engineering was in the process of discussing some drastic new directions for our products and the incrementalists (ship it soon!) were doing battle with the completionists (ship it when it’s done!). Tensions were high. Finger pointing, yelling… all the things you aren’t supposed to do in business.. but yet THEY FEEL SO GOOD when you KNOW YOU’RE RIGHT.

The VP’s second month arrived and we were still yelling. In my Wednesday 1:1 with the VP, he simply told me, “We are going to do it like this. End of discussion.”

Right so, of course I started spewing, “See, we still had to resolve issue #27 and, boy, were the completionists going to be pissed.. and had you thought about risk #12A? Blah blah blah…” He let me go for awhile and then he repeated himself, “We are going to do it like this. End of discussion.”

I might have nodded, I don’t remember.

As predicted, the team freaked. One completionist assured us he was going to quit. He slammed his door. The incrementalists weren’t happy either because they’d didn’t like being told what to do… they like to run the show. We had a good solid week of organizational disarray and… then we got back to work.

The new VP employed the mandate. He said, “I’m the guy who’s telling you the way it is“.

Now remember, I liked this guy, but, in the back of my mind when someone gives me an order, I don’t hear the order, I hear “Shut up, get moving, I don’t care what you think”. Your job as a manager is avoid giving this impression at all costs because it eventually erodes your credibility. I’ll tell you how.

There are three distinct phases to the mandate: Decide, Deliver, and Deliver (Again). Since you are the ultimate decision maker regarding this particular matter, we’re going to call this a Home Grown Mandate. These are opposite of external mandates which we’ll talk about later. Let’s begin.


Your first step is to decide when to employ the mandate and to also understand what the consequences are of laying down the law. There are thousands of little tiny decision you and your team make during the course of a day. A majority of these decisions come and go and no one is the wiser. Every so often, a big decision comes along. Doesn’t matter what the content is, what matters is that some portion of your team is on one side of the decision and other group is on the other side… and they’re arguing.

Collaboration, cross-pollination, debating, arguing… whatever you want to call the process… well, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes the team is so polarized that they start confusing the emotion with the decision. Rather than arguing the facts, they begin to argue from their heart and that is when you need to consider the mandate. Rule of thumb: When the debate is no longer productive, it’s time to make a decision.

My management style is to allow the team to argue as long as possible. I’ve got a collaborative management style because I know that the more brains and more time the team spends staring at an idea, the stronger the idea becomes. This means that decision-making in groups that I manage tends to be slower because I’m busy cross-pollinating, but I’m certain it means the our output is higher quality because we’ve taken the time consider what the hell we’re doing.

Remember that every person on the team that has a strong opinion regarding the decision, there are probably four other coworkers who just want someone to make a decision so that they can get back to work. We’ve each been part of the silent majority before… it’s the time when you choose to not engage in the heated debate. Maybe because you’re doing actual work or perhaps you just don’t care. You appreciate your silent status as you see the debate rage in the hallway… realizing how much pain, sweat, and tears you saved by staying out of it. When the team is still yapping away two weeks later, you start to wonder when someone is going to step up.

Mandates are the friend of the silent majority. Even if you really annoy the concerned parties, the silent majority will appreciate the peace and quiet once you’ve delivered your verdict.


The purpose of this article is not to explain how to make whatever hard decision you need to make regarding the heated topic in your organization. I don’t know what the topic is, so you’re on your own. I will say that if you don’t spend time considering both sides of the issue before you Deliver that your team will know it and your credibility will be suspect. Those on the losing side will wonder why they weren’t consulted and then they’ll start wandering the halls murmuring that you’re either lazy or a tyrant. Ouch.

The goal of the Deliver phase is straight forward. You need to explain to the team that a decision has been made. Sounds easy, right? Well, this is where junior managers blow it. They do a good job of explaining the decision, but they fail convey that this is the decision and further debate is not necessary. A good sign of poor mandate delivery is when the delivery degrades into, yet another, debate of the issues. Delivering a mandate takes moxie… the team has got to leave the room knowing the decision has been made. They don’t have to like it, they may hate it, but they can not leave the room thinking there’s wiggle room in what you decided.

Again, an added benefit of this my collaborative management style is that mandates are less controversial because I’ve already vetted the various flavors of the decision with all the folks who have an opinion. When the mandate (finally) lands, it feels less like laying down the law and more like I’m relaying the results of our investigation. I still piss off those who disagree with the decision, but at least they got their say, right?

Deliver (Again)

Congratulations. You’ve delivered your first mandate and now you’re staring at a room full of heads nodding in the affirmative. Even the folks who have been screwed by your decision are nodding. Well done! There’s more work to do.

All that head nodding is a big ego boost, but the fact of the matter is that each person walking out of meeting has one of three distinct opinions:

  1. YAY! — You are a Great Motivator. The winners will have this opinion of you, still you need to Deliver (Again).
  2. BOO! — You are a Tyrant. Commonly held by those who’ve been screwed. You must Deliver (Again).
  3. YAWN! — What took you so damned long? Silent majority here. Don’t sweat them… this time.

Delivering (Again) might be better called Damage Control, but that makes it sound like you screwed up by pushing the team forward… and you didn’t… maybe. Delivering (Again) is taking the time to individually express your reasoning to the concerned parties — both the yays and the boos. This not only gives you a chance to re-enforce what you mandated, but also gives coworkers the chance to respond in a non-team setting. Expect more venting. In fact, insist on it. If you’re sitting with someone who on the losing side of the decision and they’re still nodding their head, THEY DON’T BELIEVE THE BATTLE IS OVER. If you fail you get this person to open up, you will be mandating (again) in a few short weeks.

Delivering (Again) is not going to quench discontent in your team, but it going to give everyone involve a chance to speak up and that should push your management karma towards Motivator and away from Tyrant.

External Mandates

I’ve been talking about the ins and outs of Home Grown Mandates so far. These are situations where you are the decision maker which gives you access to a wealth of information as well as all of the players. In any decent sized organizations, you are equally likely to be on the receiving end of External Mandates. This is a mandate that occurs way outside of your sphere of influence.

Yes, the tables are turned. Mandates might just randomly show up and there isn’t a thing you can do it about it.

Guess what? The same rules from above apply with one exception. Just like your team, you are going to have one of the three opinions (yay, boo, or yawn) regarding the mandate. Regardless of what your opinion is, you must ask about mandate justification. What was the reasoning behind this mandate? You might have a Yawn-opinion about this, but what about the rest of your team? They might hate the mandate and boy are you going to look lame when you relay the mandate without a clue as why the mandate showed up.

Here’s the rub, mandate justification often does not travel well through a large organization. Either someone in your management food chain had a yawn-reaction to the mandate and didn’t bother to gather a justification or the grapevine has tainted the justification to the point that it no longer makes any sense. Either way, you’re going to be delivering news to your team sans reasoning. This blows. I’m certain that companies which exhibit this poor communication structure are the same ones which have reputations for notoriously tyrannical CEOs. Maybe they’re not tyrants… maybe they’re surrounded by poor communicators. Or maybe they are tyrants. I can’t tell from where I’m sitting.

The good news is that if you ever have to deliver a mandate without the facts to back it up, you less likely to pull a rookie mistake and land your Home Grown Mandate without the reasoning… the justification. You’re also not going to forget to Deliver (Again) because you know that each time you stand in front of your team, trying to be a leader, they are watching and they are listening. They want to know if you deserve the title of manager.

6 Responses

  1. kristen 20 years ago

    what. on. earth. is that picture?

  2. great post! If only Japanese companies exhibited a similar mentality. Telling it how it is, is just not their style here.

  3. It’s a dog in a mandate bag.

  4. brasten 20 years ago

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  5. Again, good thinking, even being honest that you may not always be on the winning side.

    There is a difference between manager and leader. Manager they have to follow, leaders they want to follow.

  6. Anonymous 20 years ago

    The dog picture also puzzled me. I wonder if it was because this is dog in a market ready for “delivery”. The photo was recently on Yahoo!’s most e-mailed photos and is from a foul-smelling (go figure) market in China.