Welcome to week #6 of the Cookingham Connection. Today, we hear from Ben Kittelson, the Project Manager for ELGL. Ben recently completed his MPA at Portland State University and has worked for several municipalities in the Portland area including: Beaverton, West Linn, Gresham and Oregon Metro – the regional government for the area.
“Lead those whom you contact—members of the council, subordinate employees, and citizens—into the proper channel by tactful suggestion rather than by too persuasive argument. Make them feel that they have had a major part in making the decisions and in establishing the policies that you deem to be in the best interest of the individual and the government.”
This guidepost is as relevant today as it was when Cookingham originally wrote it. It is important for City Managers and managers in general to listen to others during the decision making process. By gathering input and making people feel as if they have had a major part in making decisions it is easier to get support for the final decision and it creates a positive work culture where everyone feels like they are included and have a voice.
I think there’s another part to this guidepost in the phrase “by tactful suggestion rather than by too persuasive argument.” Here Coookingham is saying that managers cannot be heavy handed in decision making and persuasion. Even when it comes down to decision time and the final call rests with the manager, the way the decision is delivered to others has to be in a professional manner. Managers have to find a polite way to say no and a polite way to say “this is the way it’s going to be.” I think every once in awhile managers can get away with being “too persuasive” but over time that wears on employees and elected officials who need to feel that their opinion matters and that it is being taken into account.
I also argue that Cookingham doesn’t go far enough in the second part of the guidepost. I don’t think you should just make people “feel” that they have had a part in the decision, I think people need to actually influence the decision. I think a manager can show that the input received is influencing their decision by explaining how they used the input that was given. It can’t be a one-way communication of people providing input and the manager coming up with a decision, I think effective managers make each person feel like they have been heard and then they explain why and how they came to the final decision.
Good managers should also be open to changing their opinion based on the input that they receive. Sometimes this sort of process can feel like a charade and even though a manager may be checking the box of involvement and input, that input isn’t actually affecting the decision. This guidepost suggests managers need to go into a decision making process with an open mind, we should all be open to new information and opinions and it is perfectly alright if new information changes our original position.
I agree with Mr. Duggan that input on the decision making shouldn’t just be limited to Council members, or staff but should also extend to the community and outside organizations. This is especially important in this day and age where communities have to work together and cooperate to solve problems that extend beyond jurisdictional boundaries. The opinion of a neighboring jurisdiction should be heard and taken into account just as you would like your opinion to influence a decision they make. I also agree that the big takeaway from this guidepost is that the “how” of reaching a decision is just as important, and sometimes more important, as the decision itself.
Oftentimes backlash, especially from the public, about a decision is not necessarily a disagreement about what the decision was, but instead is frustration with how the decision was made. When people feel as if their voice was not heard in the decision making process they want to throw out the whole decision, even if their input would lead to the same result. I think that’s an important lesson from this guidepost for any public sector employee, and especially for managers. The process of making a decision is just as important as the substance of the decision.