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Leaders, Are You Really Looking For ‘Buy-In’?

Employees offering feedback on big corporate decisions
Making big decisions without incorporating employee feedback can put organizational change at high risk for failure. Consider taking these steps before you leap.

A client requested a meeting to discuss a “new challenge” with me. He revealed confidentially that he would be announcing the closure of one plant to move the entire operation to another state, where he already had facilities to handle the workload. He wanted me to work with his managers and staff at the closing facility to get, as he stated, their “buy-in” to the decision “with a minimum of disruption.” He assured me that all employees could move to the new site and keep their compensation whole if they wanted to continue with the company. I asked him if he was open to input from his staff on the decision, and his response was, “No, the decision is made.”

Clearly, this client did not want buy-in. He wanted compliance, preferably silent compliance, with no resistance. I pointed this out and offered an approach that included an honest communications plan about what was occurring. With irritation, he suggested that I was not listening. Of course, I declined to do the work.

During troubled times (like right now), organizations often must make big decisions rapidly to ensure survival and sustain productivity, decisions with sometimes severe consequences for people doing the daily work. However, such decisions can be communicated honestly and empathetically, unlike what was being suggested above. This requires careful planning, a thoughtful and respectful process, and a set of clear intentions about leading not only with the mind, but also with the heart.

There are steps you can take to make such decision-making more effective, not only for your company, but also for those professionals directly impacted by your decisions. First, a few principles:

Executive decisions are usually big and often controversial. If you are making decisions that do not meet these criteria, you are making decisions that somebody else should be making.

Leadership seldom has perfect information. It just is not possible. Life, and the world, is complex, and we cannot always foresee all the consequences of our decisions. If we wait for perfect information, we will never make a decision, which can create anxiety, uncertainty, and a lack of trust in leadership. Take the risk and accept failure if that is where it takes you. Learn from the experience and pivot.

Professionals generally care about their work, their company, and their relationships with their colleagues and management. For most, work is a source of pride and meaning—powerful feelings that are foolish to ignore. If you ignore them, you will create strong resentment among your professionals.

Difficult decisions come with risk, always: financial risks, relationship risks, customer-retention risks, and so on. Executives must always balance risk with reward, and the rewards are never free.

Big decisions benefit greatly from diverse perspectives. They also benefit from wisdom that comes with focused, respectful dialogue with key stakeholders. This takes time, but done well, it saves a lot of time and headache later in dealing with resistance.

Big decisions will always face some resistance. That can take many forms: apathy, anxiety, procrastination, rumor-mongering, and outright rebellion, to name a few.

So how should you make effective “big” decisions that impact your organization, your professionals, and your stakeholders? The following six steps offer a very powerful approach.

1. Before making any big decisions for your organization, do your homework. Be clear about what problem you are attempting to solve. What are the costs/benefits of proceeding? What are the pros and cons, not only for the business, but for the customers, professional staff, and management of the company? What questions will people have? What will be your response? And how will you address questions that you have not anticipated? Weak leaders pretend that they have all the answers and lose credibility fast.

2. Walk your idea around with trusted professionals and get their perspectives. What is right about the decision? What is not right? What could go wrong? How would they improve the plan? How would they communicate the plan to stakeholders? Getting many perspectives offers a rich view of the potential consequences and begins the process of co-authorship.

3. Make sure stakeholder input is incorporated in some way into your plan. People want to know that you heard them. Co-authorship is the most powerful mechanism in achieving full engagement with the decision. People will feel heard rather than marginalized. If you disagree with some of the input you receive, say so, and say why. But thank them for their perspective, since it was helpful in your thought processes. This is proof that you listened seriously. And if you do this step right, these trusted staff will help you communicate the plan later to everyone else.

4. Announce your plan and communicate it thoroughly and personally to all stakeholders. Anticipate these questions, listed in order of importance (based on research with those who have been through difficult changes, like mass layoffs and business closures):

  • How will these changes affect me, my employment, my benefits, etc.?
  • Why and when are these changes being made?
  • How will these changes affect others?
  • What must I do to be successful?
  • What help will I get to be successful?
  • What else should I know?

Be prepared to answer these questions with respect and genuine interest in the welfare of those asking, and to address emotional reactions with empathy. Publicly acknowledge that all emotions are normal (anger, disappointment, sadness, enthusiasm, anxiety, etc.) without judgment or an attempt to discount or rationalize them away. Change impacts everyone differently, and you should be prepared to offer resources for emotional support.

5. Execute the plan and understand there will be resistance. Resistance is a source of learning, and the information you get from it will help you make implementation of your plan more effective. For example, safety issues may surface that need to be addressed, staffing issues may come up that require attention, and so on. Be prepared to act on any issue that might impede the success of your decision.

6. Finally, be present during the transition. People need to see their leadership at work, available to talk about concerns and willing to help when things go wrong. If you are absent, speculation and rumors take over, and leadership messaging is lost. In fact, your absence will communicate that leadership does not care.

If my client had been willing to take my advice about relocating his facility, he might have avoided a great deal of trouble—trouble that included a lawsuit from his union, a community campaign against his company, and the eventual loss of several very good customers. Remember, buy-in requires co-authorship. Any attempt to achieve buy-in without co-authorship is manipulative. People simply do not like to be manipulated and will resist if they feel you are not being straightforward.


Excerpted from Lead with Purpose: Reignite Passion and Engagement for Professionals in Crisis.


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