April 22, 2016

How to Make Unpopular Decisions: The Key to Good Leadership

Keri’s Dilemma:

As the newly-hired head of sales at a family-owned company, Keri faced a challenge that had been ignored for far too long. Since its inception 25 years earlier, the owners had brought in only trusted family members and friends to work in the business. These people were smart, energetic, and available, but were also under-skilled and lacked experience to meet the growing demands of the business.

Keri knew the company could not grow without a different approach to sales, and she realized that the sales team she inherited would not be able to implement the vision she had for the future. But building a new team would cause a great deal of pain, anxiety, and expense. Individual lives would be affected. Losing existing employees was not an acceptable option, so she would need to help people upgrade their skills quickly or move into roles better suited for them. The owners had cultivated a family-like atmosphere and a change of the kind Keri was contemplating would cause people to question the company values. Keri would need to make a lot of unpopular decisions to bring about the changes the company needed her to make.

Keri was in a difficult position, but not an uncommon one. Senior leaders, to be effective, must make decisions that no one else is willing or able to make. Contrary to the image of the stand-alone decision-maker, most major strategic decisions are made collaboratively. Executives work in small, collegial networks and often arrive at decisions informally. Thus, an executive’s ability to influence peers and superiors, and her ability to collaborate with her team as they implement strategic decisions are absolutely essential skills.

What does it take to do this well?


It takes guts to raise difficult issues. Executives need courage to speak up and say, “We have a problem. This is how we know it’s a problem. Here’s how it will affect all of us. Here’s a solution, here’s what I’m already doing about it. If you agree, great. If not, now is the time to speak up.”

Focus on the greater good

It is important to focus on the big picture when thinking about change: what will make the organization the most successful in the long run? By keeping these higher-level goals in mind, an executive will gain credibility and strengthen his or her influence within the company. Equally important is leaving personal agendas out of the decision-making process. Failing to do so will undermine credibility and foster cynicism.

Gathering of information

Successful executives will seek out information from a variety of sources before crystallizing their point of view. They recognize that they receive filtered information that rarely reflects the whole story. For this reason, it is imperative that executives seek out people who may have additional knowledge or a different perspective and ask probing questions. Whereas many of us can become overwhelmed in a sea of information, successful decision-makers are adept at quickly narrowing it down to a small set of inputs, principles, and criteria that will ultimately drive their decision. At this point, their position begins to crystallize. Then they can begin analyzing the data and exploring their options.

Analysis and exploration

Executives explore various ways of framing the issue. They consider the issue in relation to broader phenomenon within the organization or outside of it. They examine the issue from various points in time, including both historical and future perspectives. They study their options in terms of their assumptions, contingencies, and implications. They ask questions like, “What assumptions does this option make? If this option is chosen, what will success depend on? What will impede it? And what are the likely consequences? What unlikely but serious consequences may occur? How will the market react? How will the CEO react? The board? My colleagues? My organization? Clients or consumers?” Some of the best strategic decision-makers are able to think through second- and third-order implications of a multitude of options from every angle.

A coalition of support: Don’t go it alone

Tough decisions need not be made in isolation. Enlisting support from your boss, colleagues, and your team smooths the way for change and helps ensure the change will be sustainable.

Enlisting your boss helps both of you. Your boss can: tell you if you’re going down a path he or she can’t support; enlist support from his or her colleagues; and shield you from retribution if things go awry. In turn, your boss will benefit from the information and a more effective business. The place to start is by educating him or her about the problem and arming him or her with the relevant data.

Your colleagues should also be included in designing and implementing the change. You should actively solicit the thoughts of the group and listen respectfully regardless of rank and role. Areas of agreement and dissent should be openly discussed and considered. People are much more likely to buy into plans to which they contribute.

Finally, your direct reports should be included to the fullest extent possible. Allow team members to see the problem and educate them about the implications if the problem is not resolved. If you are worried about damaging the culture, keep in mind that culture is not harmed by unpopular decisions: Culture is harmed when decisions are perceived to be unfair, unjust, or unnecessary. People accept decisions that are detrimental to them, if they believe the decision-making process to be fair and just. This is known as procedural justice. Organizations strong in procedural justice have healthier cultures and superior performance. Culture is also harmed by inaction. If an employee is unable to pull his or her weight and managers fail to take action, both those managers’ credibility and the company’s culture suffers.

What Keri Did

Keri began influencing her colleagues and the CEO the day she walked in the door. She was careful not to criticize. She did not catch people by surprise or embarrass them in public. Instead, she met one-on-one with colleagues who would be affected by her plan. She used data and examples to show why these skills were critical to the company’s growth. She made persuasive arguments for why the other departments should help bear the costs and short-term pain of her plan. She began educating her colleagues and team about the sales skills the company needed in place to be effective. She was fully transparent about the decision criteria that led to her recommendations, and she was consistent in the arguments that she made for her plan, both privately and publicly.

Keri’s solution was aggressive, but the way she formulated and presented it to her colleagues made all the difference. Balancing candor with openness to others’ opinions, humility with courage, and making a concerted effort to build and maintain support of her colleagues and CEO, Keri was able to make the personnel changes that needed to be made. She was so successful in this effort that the other executives agreed to look at their own staff. They hired an HR professional to help develop employees and identify and recruit skilled people who could carry the company forward. With more experienced, effective workers in place, the company tripled its net income after two years.

Keri, meanwhile, gained a great deal of credibility and respect among her staff and colleagues for dealing with the proverbial elephant in the room.

Learn more about our approach to safety leadership

How to Make Unpopular Decisions: The Key to Good Leadership

April 22, 2016


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