Once we have prepared ourselves for the possibility of leaving the organization, we can examine other strategies available to us that may or may not lead to the necessity to do so. In some circumstances when faced with an order or policy with which we are morally uncomfortable, we have the option of querying or appealing it to a higher level of authority. When this option is available to us, it is often the correct moral action to take, but doing so is fraught with sensitivities.
The first sensitivity is our relationship with our direct superior who is issuing the order. If we have a good relationship with this individual, we will, of course, raise our concern with him. If he maintains his position despite our clear expressions of concern, we are faced with the prospect of going above him and creating complications for this individual whom we otherwise respect. Conversely, if we already have a strained relationship with our superior, it may be tempting to avoid him altogether and go directly to the next level of authority, which will further strain the relationship.
In these cases, the guiding principle is to tend to our relationship as best we can while still doing what we believe is right. Under normal circumstances, this involves informing our superior of our intentions:
“With all due respect, you and I have a fundamental disagreement on this matter. I would like us to consult with _____ [next level of authority] before we implement this action.”
“I know that you have said that _____ [next level of authority] has sanctioned this activity, but I am still uncomfortable with it and would like your concurrence on speaking directly with her before proceeding.”
“I have too much respect for you to go behind your back, so I want you to know that I intend to speak with _____ [next level of authority] before this is implemented. Please let me know if you would like to sit in on the meeting.”
Sometimes we feel too personally threatened to be this open with our direct superior regarding our intentions. There is a temptation to not give prior notice before going to a higher level. Courageous followership requires challenging ourselves as to whether this is truly necessary. Might our concerns be exaggerated? What will the consequences be to our group dynamics when our direct superior learns of our action, which will probably happen?
The second sensitivity in deciding whether to query or appeal an order or policy to a higher level is the likely reaction at that level. These actions carry two different levels of risk.
Querying an order or policy is a request for clarification before proceeding to enact it. Its intention is to prevent inadvertently making serious mistakes because of faulty information or communication. Depending on whether the higher level of authority is the originator or not, a query seeks to have answered certain questions:
Is the order or policy being relayed as intended?
Has the higher level of authority been given full information about the context in which the order or policy will be executed?
Has the higher level of authority fully considered the potential consequences of implementing the order or policy as it stands?
Have the highest levels of authority who will be held accountable for the action been thoroughly briefed on these factors?
Can those issuing the orders provide further information that will help those who are expected to implement the actions understand the reasoning behind them?
An appeal, by contrast, is an explicit request to cancel or alter or delay implementation of an order or policy. It may follow a query that has not resulted in concerns being satisfactorily addressed, or it may be made without first requesting further clarification.
“Respectfully, I request this order be rescinded for the following reasons: _____ .”
“Based on the reasons I have stated, I am requesting that you make the following amendments to the policy before it is broadly issued: _____ .”
“I have fully discussed my objections to this proposed directive with _____ [direct superior], and she is still intent on issuing it. Because of the potential damage to our mission, and despite my generally high regard for _____ , I am taking the unusual step of asking you to intervene and suspend the directive until you have had a chance to fully study the issue.”
As followers, we must appreciate that the higher level of authority to whom we are making the appeal also has a relationship with our direct superior. She must do what she can to protect the common purpose and values of the organization and also be sensitive to the morale and development of her direct report, who may have made an error in judgment.
We may find the actions that result from our appeal mitigate the most troubling aspects of the order or policy without fully addressing our concerns. As courageous followers, we must once again evaluate what will serve the common purpose best. If we can now morally live with the imperfect outcome of this process, that may be the best way to serve the common purpose.
If we still cannot live with the modified order or policy or, more problematically, if we find that the higher level of authority fully agrees with the original order or policy that morally disturbs us, we will need to contemplate taking the next level of moral action.