51% of the Vote

This is going to be a challenge to write without putting in all sorts of Navy jargon, so bear with me because it’s important. Well, it’s important to me and all of us wearing the same uniform. It’s hard to explain in regular terms, but I’m going to try my best. For those out there who know all the Navy vocabulary I’m leaving out, please don’t think I’m discrediting what we do. I just want to share an idea in regular terms if I can.

I’m the senior person in a talented group. My job, for as long as I remain in uniform, is to lead the group towards making whatever organization we’re in successful. I invest my energy into that group, and they in turn lead their people based on the mission, direction from those over us, and the decisions we collectively come to.

The running trend in these groups is the number 51. In a sentence, it looks like this: “Jamie’s senior, he’s got 51% of the vote, so he gets what he wants.” It’s gotten so prevalent as a phrase that people expect I think that way myself.

To put things nicely, I disagree.

If that’s the case, then why do I have the most influential group of people around me? Why do I have two to three meals a day with them to keep connected, so we can talk, vent, laugh, and sometimes argue about what’s important? Yes, I’m senior in that room for a reason, but every other person is there for a reason as well. They’re the most experienced people we have in every field.

I’ve been at this longer than everyone in the room, but the guy next to me has been running engines and engineers for 16 years, as opposed to my zero years doing what he does. The same goes for my computer guy, logistics guy, combat guy, etc. I’m good at what I do, which is lead that group towards our goals. Everyone else in that room is just as good at what they do, which is something I know little about. If you’ve ever seen me anywhere near an engine, you know what I’m talking about.

The table I’m at has the most experienced, tested, knowledgeable, hardest working, aggressive, passionate, and convicted professionals on the ship. They’re great at what they do and are all doing their part to make the whole thing move forward. If this sounds familiar, it should. Even though we do it our own way, you’ll see a similar organizational chart in almost every profession. My job is to get the best decisions out of the best people. Easy, right? Thankfully, no. It’s hard, it’s loud, it’s sometimes painful, but we do the best we can with what we have.

Sooner or later, we find ourselves at an impasse. I want option A, and the rest of the group I trust with my life wants option B. By this time, the room is a mess, stuff has been thrown, and people in the next room fled when the volume got turned up. Remember, we’re all the best we have at what we do, we’re aggressive, and we all want what’s best for the same organization and the people in it.

When it’s all said and done, how often should I disagree with the people at that table? It does happen, but really only once or twice a year at most. We’re pretty good at making decisions together, but sometimes we find ourselves deadlocked. When that happens, I calmly state that I have 51% of the vote thanks to my rank and position, and kick everyone out. Right?

Sounds silly, counterproductive, and dangerous for both myself and the organization, doesn’t it? I won’t end the discussion like that, and I won’t start it that way either. It’s not fair to the people in the room who need to know that their voice is important, and it’s not fair to the organization that needs good decisions, even if they’re not my own.

I have to admit, when the volume goes up and it gets personal, I sometimes wish to end the argument that easily. When we get to that point, I remind myself of the most important thing in all of this: We have a boss who is responsible for the whole shooting match. We’re all doing the best we can for that one person, and it’s not me.

If I can’t come to an agreement with my group of the most influential people we have, and it has us polarized, should the boss know? I say yes. If there’s a topic so heated and has enough of an impact on the organization that we can’t come to terms, the boss deserves to know. I’d even go so far as to say he should hear both sides, whether I agree or not.

So, this is what I tell the new people when they have a seat at the table: I don’t have 51% of the vote. I have 49%, and the rest of the group has 49%. If something can’t be resolved, the boss has the swing vote. It’s fair to him, and it’s fair to us. I say this on the first day so people know that their voice matters, that this isn’t all about me all the time. It reminds them that there’s one person we all work for, and it keeps things in perspective so we can do what we need to.

And sometimes, we need to disagree.

– How often do you disagree with the rest of the group on what’s best for the organization?

– Have you ever had to bring that other side of the discussion to your boss or manager?

– Should you have?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.