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When getting a 2nd opinion is not good

You often hear this advice when dealing with things in the medical world. “It’s always a good idea to get a 2nd opinion.” This is normally sage advice if you are dealing with a doctor that you don’t know very well, or if they have given you some really heavy news – i.e. recommending a major surgery, provided a disturbing diagnosis, etc. Before proceeding down a particular path, as a patient, you might want to consider getting a second opinion so as to get some comfort and clarity with the decisions you need to make.

However, this becomes a problematic issue when the same principles are applied in the workplace. Specifically, this is very detrimental to the employee/employer relationship when a manager does this to their staff. It is even more so, when the employee is hired for a role because of their specific technical expertise and a manager still chooses to seek advice/counsel from other employees or external sources. This completely undermines the employment relationship, causes the employee to feel de-valued and most definitely erodes any sense of engagement they might have had with their employer.

second opinionThe thing is, when this occurs, I don’t believe that managers are even consciously aware of what they are doing. Many mid-level managers are so risk adverse and trying to keep their heads above water that they simply think they are covering their bases so as to make the ‘perfect’ decision. The funny thing is that this type of behaviour isn’t just limited to mid-level managers though. I have seen Director/VP level leaders do the same thing. The damage that they cause by doing this is so subtle (or even non-existent) to them as the manager, but it is very detrimental to the organizational health due to how it erodes the employee/employer relationship.

Let me explain by providing a real life example with the names and companies changed to protect the innocent. A friend of mine, let’s call her Mary, works for Acme Industries in Ontario as their Director of Human Resources. Mary is a very experienced HR professional who is well versed in her field and in particular employment law, human rights and occupational health and safety. She was brought on board at Acme several years ago to lead their HR function and to help Acme leverage its current talent base.
Mary provided her boss, the President of Acme, with a briefing note and supporting plan of what Acme had to do in order to be compliant with the recent changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Mary’s boss gave the documents a quick scan, asked a few cursory questions and then asked her to leave it with him to review. So far so good right? Here is where this went off the rails – Mary’s boss then proceeded to take this document to his Director of Finance to get his take (second opinion) and input on what Mary had proposed!? Yes, that is right, the Director of Finance, who, by the way, has no experience at all in law, human resources or occupational health and safety.

As you can guess there was no real input, validation or value that came from the Director of Finance reviewing this document. The other problem with this is that it wasn’t the first time that Mary had this issue crop up. She had previously provided counsel to the President on other matters like specific labour market factors that could impact their compensation strategy, (which the President then got a 2nd opinion on from his head of Sales) as well as recommended policy additions/updates to social media and harassment policies that he (the President) got a second opinion on from his Director of Finance again!

The bottom line is that for Mary, the recurring theme is that regardless of what she has developed or proposed because of her expertise, the President always seeks a second opinion from others. Now, I know what you are thinking, “did Mary talk to the President about this?” Yes, she did, and when she asked him if there were trust issues with her knowledge and recommendations, he simply shrugged her concerns off as not being valid and dismissed them outright. When I spoke to Mary about this and asked her if she thought the President was even aware of what he was doing (i.e. undermining her credibility and knowledge) by always seeking these 2nd opinions, she responded that she thinks that is just the way he is wired and probably isn’t even aware of the impact, even when confronted with it. After almost three years of this, needless to say, Mary has now made the decision to look for a new position, one in which her input is valued and not continuously second guessed.

The moral of the story is this – when you hire good people to do a job, you need to let them do it. You can’t micro-manage every level of detail, nor can you ‘mitigate’ any and all risk by getting 2nd opinions on everything. You need give your employees the autonomy to do their job and then hold them accountable for their results. At the end of the day, you hired this person for a reason. Assuming you have not had trust issues in the past with them, then you either trust them to do their job or you don’t. If you do, then let them do their job. If you don’t trust them, why are they still working for you? Above all else, you need to understand why and how second guessing impacts the relationship you will have with your staff. If you are a second opinion kind of manager, be prepared to accept the disengagement and turnover that will result. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of cooldesign/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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4 Responses

  1. Interesting article Scott, and not only is this behaviour undermining the employee it is adding to the cost and timeliness of every decision. As you say, managers (executives) need to trust their people to do the job. I will however cite two potential situations where that may differ.
    1. No doubt there will be some “big” decisions that will require several opinions/recommendations. My approach to those situations is to ask someone to take the lead and make a proposal that can be used as the starting point. The person taking the lead is aware of the process, understands their opinion is valued and also realise that they probably have the biggest say, because it will be their opinion that is debated.
    2. New people may need to build credibility before their opinions on important topics (legislative requirements that could hurt the company etc) will be taken at face value. The risk tolerance of the manager will be a factor in how long this should last. Herein lies the problem you describe because many (most?) managers are extremely risk averse, and the “probationary” time never ends!

    • Kevin – great insights and I appreciate your perspective as always. The situations you describe are most certainly ‘exception’ based and not the normal running of the business type decisions. As always, it comes down to, as you said, the communication. The lead person is aware of their role and the process…they don’t find out that they are being undermined through the back channels! Totally agree about new folks needing to build credibility but with the right leadership in place that shouldn’t take too long. Love the comment about the probationary period never seeming to end…..so true. Thanks Kevin

  2. Scott, I really liked this alternative look at this saying. You are dead on. Sometimes we have to consider the cost of eroding confidence in our people before “getting a second opinion.” Even though it might be the right thing to do from a decision-making perspective, there is a cost and have to ask, “Is it worth the cost of someone’s confidence?”

    Very good! Thank you for posting!
    ~Mike

  3. Mike – thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate your perspective. Much like you and Kevin (above) posit, it does come down to this confidence eroding behaviour. It is the day in and day out approach t0 this that really takes its toll on the manager/employee relationship. Thanks again for reading and commenting Mike!

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