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First off, this specific incident is about a volunteer organization, not necessarily a workplace... Having said that

I have two sets of managers directly above me: the management that funds, and the management that directs. I needed more volunteers, and just gave the paperwork to a couple I thought would be a good fit, but one group does not like their background (a different version of our organization). I showed paperwork from our top-of-the-line governing body, stating we are allowed to ask people from that group to help out if we need it. She stated she didn't like that answer, but OK. I continue interviewing, then she came back in saying that my other manager has also turned down the idea, even though it is written we are allowed to do so.

There are people higher up then these two (who, just to throw in a curveball, are married), but I don't really feel comfortable going above their heads, even if I'm right. I know I have to, and all my subordinates believe I should. How can I go about talking to someone higher up without causing more conflict here?

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Tighten your seat belt Luke. It's gonna be a bumpy ride. –  Mechaflash Oct 23 '12 at 22:05
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You're a volunteer. What are they going to do? –  Amy Blankenship Oct 24 '12 at 0:15
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OK, so you're a volunteer, Luke. Is your manager a salaried staff member or another volunteer? It does make a difference (I have extensive experience in the Voluntary sector) –  itsbruce Oct 24 '12 at 10:40
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@itsbruce we're all volunteer –  Canadian Luke Oct 24 '12 at 14:54
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@superm they feel the candidates I chose would sway the kids' decision to join their group instead of another group we are financially linked to. Essentially, the groups are the same, just slight differences –  Canadian Luke Oct 24 '12 at 14:57

6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

In your specific use case, I'd advise against it. There are sometimes where for the sake of team, It's advisable to take the high-road. Both your superiors are plainly against the move, even if you did get approval from the 2-ups, you'll find yourself having to defend your decision from them and frankly place yourself in an uncomfortable situation with them both. If you had support from just one of them, it'd have been worth a shot. It's a volunteer org, meaning you probably work in close contact with these people regularly so friction may be unavoidable

Keep in mind that even when you go above them, 2-ups should at least ask why you're bringing it to them directly and not your superiors. Then you go about the task of explaining how they both thought it wasn't a good idea and you felt different. You can't be absolutely sure how they'll see that move. And let's not forget the example you're setting for your subordinates (who apparently are aware of the impasse between you and your superiors). Expect that they will take cues from how you handle this situation.

In a more generic situation, it's advisable to keep your request somewhere on record, probably formalize your request in an email to both of them (your managers). As this is occurring after the fact that you've discussed it with them, they may

  1. Ignore your mail as a repeat discussion they don't want to be dragged into
  2. Respond to your email with the same response they gave to you
  3. Give a fresh response

You may cc the 2-up management in both cases (depending on your organizational structure and reporting lines) and as a result they'd be in the loop, and things will naturally work themselves out. Your superiors would then have to reply with them in copy. If they end up refusing in mail, the 2-ups will at least be in the know, and you could then approach them (preferably in less officious tone and circumstance) on "that issue you raised a couple of days ago."

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To minimize risk of a deeper conflict, you go higher up asking for advice (not for directions or decisions).

This is the situation, I think about it this way while my manager thinks that way, what would you advise me to do?

That would be a completely reasonable request, it justifies that you have a reason to go above your manager in this case - just keep in mind that normally this is not expected to happen very often.

Also, higher management is by their very position expected to be capable of handling downstream stuff like that as smooth as possible - in this scenario you basically "borrow" their (presumably sufficient) skills to resolve situation.

Through my career, I did that few times and it worked like a charm.

If the situation is not very conflicting and if you're more or less comfortable about that, consider also notifying your direct manager that you're going to go higher-up for advice. I did that few times too, because I felt that it made upper manager feel better when I could add to my request something like,

I told my manager that I am going to you for advice; as far as I understand they didn't object.

Note this is somewhat risky because if the notified manager objects, you would have an additional burden to explain why you went above despite the objections. Think of how you could spell the notification to make it less likely to happen.

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Very interesting, do you mind telling us in which industry you work ? I do not know if I could do this in my company without causing major stir. –  BlueTrin Oct 25 '12 at 13:07
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@BlueTrin software-industry. I can imagine company where it could stir as you describe but I wouldn't want to work there. I mean, as I explained, stuff like that is pretty reasonable (if happens infrequently); if a company can not handle it, what other reasonable things it is unable to manage? career growth? vacations? salary?? –  gnat Oct 26 '12 at 13:32

I do not believe you can go higher up without causing more conflict. You have every right to debate this with your line managers - go argue your case - but unless you can show that they have acted completely unreasonably or that this situation is critical to your team's existence, then you have no grounds for going higher up.

There is no way to go above your managers' heads without making it a challenge to their judgement. If there were a way to keep it secret (for example, to arrange for an apparently unrelated external event to require changing things your way), that might work but I wouldn't respect your bosses' managers if they agreed to do that in this context. In this case, it is going to be very clear that any intervention from above was instigated by you. Is it worth it, for this? You will permanently damage your relationship with them.

I think your boss has the right to make the decision she did. If she doesn't like working with that organisation, she is in the position to make that call. It doesn't matter that there's a policy saying it's permissible to work with that group. If there were a policy making it mandatory, that would be different.

Note: I see from your comments above that you hate confrontation and do not deal with it well. But debate (which will only involve confrontation if it becomes unreasonable) is essential here. If you do not debate it with them, you have absolutely no grounds to go above their heads. If I were their boss and you came to me with your objections, I'd say "So what did they say to your argument? Oh, you didn't present it to them?". Not giving them the chance to examine your reasoning and present their own before taking it upstairs is dishonest and unfair. Ironically, it also guarantees the conflict you say you don't like.

You should consider assertiveness training. Assertiveness is all about being prepared to state your case reasonably. Your lack of assertiveness is the problem, here, not your manager's lack of judgement. Until you learn to stand your ground and make your case, your manager will not have the chance to show whether or not she is truly unreasonable.

Go back to them and explain why you feel it is important. Ask them to reconsider. If they still say no, say OK but ask for their reasons. If those seem unjustified and this really is so crucial, then take it upstairs. And be prepared for conflict.

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This is a very tough situation. The choices you have are to go above the Managers, try to convince the Managers the COUPLE you have selected are good enough for the job, or have the Managers bring in more volunteers if more volunteers are needed.

Your goal is to first get more volunteers.

I would try to open up dialogue again before going above the Managers and behind their backs which might set off a not so pleasant attack on you later .

Managers Last Attempt

"Currently I feel we have a need for more volunteers and I'd like your input on what you would look for in a volunteer - and it will help me a great deal if we can talk about it and help me understand what you are looking for in volunteer candidates."

Now if you have tried everything possible and the Managers are being unreasonable, defensive, silent, for some reason ... it might mean their turf was violated.

Going Above

Anyway... If you see their Manager in the hall or arrange an impromptu meeting... you might start a conversation like...

"Hey, can I check something with you? I've got some ideas on using this COUPLE for volunteers. A few people have reservations about the Couples background. And I was just wondering what's your view?"

Maybe he can solve the issue for you. And you are just the portal for the idea.

What you need out of this is to avoid making your life tough and getting the volunteers without harming the working relationship with the Managers.

But it might already be a bad relationship already. And if the relationship is in a bad spot it needs to be fixed.

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You raise a lot of good points about that... I'd like to hold off marking as an answer if I can, nothing personal... I just like multiple POVs –  Canadian Luke Oct 23 '12 at 22:38
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I think the OP meant that the two managers that already rejected the idea are a couple, NOT that the potentially-incoming voluteers area couple. Which might change things... –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Oct 24 '12 at 14:57

You Can't.

Going above your manager shows them that you do not respect their ability to make a business decision. This is not about being right or wrong, but rather about showing respect to your manager. If you go over their head you might get your desired result. And your manager could even let it go, but you can not undo the damage that will be done.

Managers are human too, and people do not like having their decisions overruled. And there is also the possibility(maybe even likelihood) that your manager's director will back your manager. In this case you are going to take the hit for going over their head and still not get the outcome you want.

However if you are right, and the decision is made to overturned, and the result is a success, and you give you manager major credit for the success, then you may be able to salvage the professional relationship. Alternately you could use it to advance yourself at the cost of your manager. But that road is more dangerous to navigate than you probably realize.

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If you are a volunteer and you can still be fired as a volunteer as I almost was for being a no-show bum 20 years ago, then it's a workplace issue :)

Having said that, the option to escalate to upper management is yours and whether you want to escalate depends on how strongly you feel about the issue.

If I were in your position and I chose to escalate to upper managgement, I would start by putting it in writing to upper management. Make sure to be clear in stating the issue, fair and objective in stating the disagreement, and respectful to the two managers by stating that you regard both of them very highly, that it's a pleasure to work with both of them and that's only a disagreement but that you feel strongly enough the issue that you want upper management to take a position. And reiterate at the end of your letter that you like both managers as people, that they are a pleasure to work with as professionals and extremely capable people, and that you look forward to continuing to work with them and for them regardless of the decision that upper manager makes. The idea is not to kiss up but to put forward the issue, if you choose to put it forward, in a way that makes every one feel good and confident in your reliability and judgment as a capable professional working for the organization - a professional who works well with others despite the occasional disagreement. Yeah, it's not just the issue - it's about you, too :)

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