Making tough decisions is part of being a leader, but getting employees to accept those decisions can be challenging. Employees may resist changes that negatively impact them or go against their own ideas. However, with the right approach, leaders can get their team on board with difficult choices.
Today we will explore techniques for earning employees' buy-in, even when decisions are unpopular. It provides specific examples of how to apply these methods in practice.
Implementing the Decision Fairly
A key way leaders can get employees to accept tough decisions is to implement them in a fair, equitable way. Employees are more likely to accept changes they view as fair, even if the changes are unfavorable.
For example, if a company needs to eliminate 50 positions, the leader should look to cut based on objective factors like seniority or performance metrics, not personal relationships. Making the process transparent and communicating the rationale directly shows the decision was made fairly.
The leader could explain, "To stay solvent, we need to reduce headcount by 10%. I wish we didn't have to lose any of you, but we determined the cuts based on performance reviews and tenure to be objective. Here is the process we used..."
Leaders should also provide support during the transition to help employees accept difficult changes. This includes emotional support by acknowledging the difficulty of the situation, as well as practical support like training and resources.
For instance, if transitioning to a new system that will require employees to learn new skills, the leader should validate it will be challenging to change old habits. Offering training sessions and on-boarding assistance will make adopting the new system less intimidating. Checking in frequently at first to answer questions and troubleshoot issues also provides needed support.
Involving Employees in the Process
Engaging employees directly in the decision-making process fosters buy-in by giving them an opportunity to influence or provide feedback on the outcome. Even if leaders make the ultimate call, employees will better understand the rationale if they had a voice.
Say an organization is selecting a vendor for a major project. The leader could appoint a taskforce of stakeholders and end-users to review proposals and weigh in on the pros and cons of each option. The leader still decides but gains insights from different perspectives. Employees are more likely to accept the decision because they were part of the process.
Customizing Communication Strategies
Leaders should tailor communication about difficult decisions to connect better with different audiences. Strategies include:
One-on-one conversations to address individual concerns
Small group meetings for a more intimate Q&A
Company-wide town halls to transparently explain the reasoning
FAQs and talking points for managers cascading messages
Visual aids like presentations to make complex issues relatable
For example, a CEO announcing a merger could hold an all-hands meeting to make the announcement, then follow up with talking points for managers to discuss with their teams. Having managers act as messengers creates opportunities for employees to ask questions and better understand how it impacts their specific roles.
Making tough calls is intrinsic to leadership, but securing employee buy-in does not need to be difficult. By implementing changes fairly, providing support, involving employees, and customizing communication, leaders can help employees accept unfavorable decisions. Taking these steps builds trust in leadership and motivates employees to move forward constructively. Though tough decisions challenge organizations, leaders can unite rather than divide their teams by earning acceptance through compassion and transparency.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.