Emerging Generations in Local Government – 6

Cookingham Connection - Ben KWe’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what a city manager had to say about Cookingham’s 6th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Ben Kittelson. Ben is an MPA graduate from Portland State University, an intern for the City of West Linn, Oregon, and project manager for Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL).

Guidepost #6:

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 which 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 Cookingham 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 a while, managers can get away with being “too persuasive.” However, 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 importantand sometimes more importantas the decision itself.

Often times backlash, especially from the public, about a decision is not necessarily a disagreement about what the decision was. Instead, it was 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.

The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.

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