Owen Matthews on Strongest Voice Management

The following article is an Opinion editorial by Alacrity Canada Chairman Owen Matthews

If you think about good management, a few underlying principles come to mind: you want people to speak up when they have a valid opinion, you don’t want team members to be afraid of voicing their ideas and or sharing feedback, and to ensure no one is undermining anyone else’s authority. You want people to earn respect for the decisions and listen carefully and thoughtfully when a decision is being fairly challenged. Different groups need to work seamlessly together, which means respecting input from others who can challenge your thinking. Imposing a hierarchy on decisions does nothing to help teams work together, and they almost always have to work together. So you need to teach collaborative decision making, unless you as a senior manager want to weigh in on every decision that affects the group, and then you end up undermining the person who you gave decision making authority to. 

This article describes a management style that I like to call Strongest Voice Management. What it is, how to set it up in your own office, and how to get your employees to learn it.

What is Strongest Voice Management?

I’ve always been averse to clear hierarchical roles in an organization, and have spoken in the past about keeping hierarchy flat, but not flat. In my view, good management goes beyond enabling people under your supervision to make big decisions. We as managers should structure environments in which people are empowered to share a wider voice, and I do not believe hierarchy is the best structure to encourage healthy communication and ideas.

If I’m a manager of a particular department or function, I need to have the authority to make decisions associated with that area. But at the same time, I want my colleagues and employees to be able to speak up, and offer differing opinions if doing so will lead to better outcomes, increased efficiency, etc (whatever the organization is trying to achieve).

With a hierarchical structure, there’s always a challenge (even conflict) associated with decision making. If members of the team voice an opinion that differs from that of their supervisor, they are essentially “disputing” the point of view of management. If these “disputes” become frequent, it can get to a point where ultimately a CEO or manager will have to step in, from the unfortunate point of view of: “how do I address this conflict”. I’ve always naturally moved away from those kinds of structures, and instead head towards encouraging a more collaborative type of environment. I believe it should be more of an institutionally accepted structure that there be less direct control from management over decisions. If I was to take my years of experience managing teams and companies, and summarize it in a line, I would dub it “managing via the strongest voice”.

“I believe it should be more of an institutionally accepted structure that there be less direct control from management over decisions.”

With Strongest Voice Management, the decision maker changes based on the situation. The person with the strongest voice is the one who is closest to a given decision, has the most experience in that area, who is able to achieve the strongest objectives, etc. They are recognized as having the strongest voice, but not given ultimate authority to come to a conclusion on their own – they must work with the team around them to execute. Knowing that colleagues can (and are expected to) speak up and challenge decisions helps them feel they have the opportunity to speak. In a sense, it’s a positive way of forcing collaboration.

Two people in elegant shirts brainstorming over a sheet of paper near two laptops

It isn’t difficult to understand that company departments can’t operate in silos. Product management can’t work in total independence from engineers. Could you imagine how dysfunctional that would be! Product designs made in isolation without input from engineers conveying what can be done or marketers explaining what the market is asking for. Total failure, even for big companies.

Departments are inherently interrelated in a company, the decisions are ultimately interrelated. Encouraging everyone to respect each other’s input and having a team question decisions from people who are technically responsible for the decisions is a great management practice and an important cultural element. That being said, without a framework for how decisions are made and offering no real authority to anyone would create endless battle or stalemates when hard decisions are required. No one would know what to do or who is in charge. This is obviously a pretty bad state as well.

Building up managers with the right philosophy around decisions is critical. When decisions are straightforward, everybody in a management team or group hears about the decisions from whoever is responsible, everyone acknowledges it and moves on. At anytime however, a colleague, another manager or even a subordinate, can speak up and (politely) challenge that decisions. I hesitate calling them decisions, because they really aren’t at that stage. They are like proposals, which unchallenged turn into action. When challenged, a discussions insues where valid points are exchanged, people affected share their thoughts, a senior manager may way in on their values or key objectives to clarify a path, but ultimately the group respects the role of the person with the strongest voice and supports their decision. At the same time, the person responsible for that area of the business needs to make the decision with the support of their colleagues. Ignoring their input, or their collective disagreement, prompts a more senior manager’s intervention. Everyone learns to respect each other input and let people get on with the non-controversial stuff pretty quickly. The tougher decisions need a team, and it is important to get managers to understand that they can’t lead by making decisions in isolation and trying to use their authority to ram these decisions down the throats of others because of their position, budget or project authority.

Silhouette of a group of friends with arms raised atop a mountain peak during sunset

Let’s use an example: let’s say that for a given decision, the product manager is deemed to have the strongest voice. The decision is in their area of expertise and they have responsibility for achieving the objectives associated with it. If an engineer feels it is important to question the decision, they are expected to speak up. However, if most of the managers or colleagues present feel it is reasonable decision, the product managers are generally expected to hear the input from a colleague, in this case the engineer, respect it, but still move on with the decision, while being informed about the risks associated with the engineers concern and consider mitigating them. They have the strongest voice individually in the discussion and, therefore, should get on with the action.  

However, if multiple people from the team are opposed to what the product manager is saying, the strongest voice individually, gets drowned out by the group voice that is raising concern and the product manager really needs to come up with a better plan. In this scenario, having the product manager talk about their authority in this decision, is a disaster. Jumping up and down about it being “my” decisions is terrible leadership, no matter how senior you are or how sure you are that you are right.

If you can establish a management structure that inherently contributes to the organization, rather than giving one person the overall power to make decisions, then you get away from this fiefdom mentality that is rife in so many companies where people are constantly fighting for authority. Looking for political or decision-making power isn’t the right way to approach managing a firm. The minute you say “it’s your responsibility to run this department” you’re empowering someone to make a decision over another area or department or another person who may have different values, understandings, and perspectives. I’ve found Strongest Voice Management to be effective at maximizing the potential value from these differences, rather than minimizing their potential disruption.

How to set up the Strongest Voice Management in your office

Unless you institutionalize Strongest Voice Management type behaviour (highly collaborative, supportive, and solution-finding focused), you’re relying on the culture to make it happen. Or, you’re relying on a manager to make it happen, and then if they leave that culture leaves with them. Many good managers do this instantaneously and it is why they have succeeded. Many bad managers who fight and manipulate for this position perceive management as a right to control, and can destroy the entire companies at record speed. Guard against this by institutionalizing strongest voice management and ot relying on the instinctual skills of individual managers. Institutionalize this culture, and set your company up to “manage by the strongest voice”, by diligently promoting it at all levels of the company.

A workplace with countless rows of desks.

Put it in the job descriptions for managers – “you will have the strongest voice in subject matters like X, Y, and Z, and barring any objections you can decide to operate in that mandate”.

During employee onboarding explain to each person what their manager’s latitude is. Tell the employees that they’re expected to have a voice. If you’re the youngest employee with the least experience, you may have the smallest voice, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice.

Strongest Voice Management encourages a wide range of opinions, empowers people who feel something is wrong (or could be done better) to have a stronger voice, and encourages a manager to reflect on their quality of work (realizing your whole department doesn’t agree with you, and then having to actually do something about that, certainly inspires personal performance reflection).

Strongest Voice Management also encourages diversity (in a much smoother, non-forced, and more responsible manner than firing half the board to introduce more diversity). If you’re actively encouraging people to have opinions, and seriously consider the opinions of others, then you’re going to be continuously encouraging diversity in your workplace.

In a workplace embracing Strongest Voice Management, managers are being promoted by virtue of their ability to make collaborative decisions, and encourage people to follow them (rather than by being best at getting others to submit to their will). This is independent of their experience and background. You earn your strongest voice. It’s a methodology of providing diversity of opinion rather than just selecting someone and forcing them into the role.

You earn your strongest voice

A good manager will naturally understand and accept that they need to listen to the people who operate on the ground floor. If it’s unclear for a team operating under a good manager whether there is a traditional business hierarchy or not, and the company culture is thriving, then why have hierarchy at all?

With Strongest Voice Management, employees must earn the strongest voice by demonstrating both their expertise and their leadership skills. This is a great fit for scaling tech companies, as it eliminates the destructive competition of people battling over promotions. Burning bridges and stabbing backs does not earn you the strongest voice – performing to the benefit of your team, and company does.

Moving up by teaching independence and good management.

If you can get your team humming along nicely, you can move on to focus on the key things you need to do. Getting caught in the muck of day to day management sucks so much of our focus on what really matters to move a company forward. If you can teach your team to self manage, and get them to teach their subordinates to do the same, everyone can keep growing their responsibility and operating smoothly. Senior people can use their experience to weigh in when needed, and stop wasting time managing internal battles, having to make hard decisions that are often ill informed. I would argue that it is the only way to move up, getting your managers to move up and get their subordinates to learn how to manage effectively. Everybody wins.

A glowing red “change” neon on a wall

There are so many advantages to Strongest Voice Management: the ability to innovate, to recognize something isn’t working and change it quickly, to collaborate between departments, to encourage opinions, and make promotions based on who gains respect as a result of their ideas, actions, and leadership – vs – who plays the political game best.

I’ve employed Strongest Voice Management with my teams to great success, and I hope you’ll find value in doing so too.

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