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How do you Communicate an Unpopular Decision?

Stephen Billing, December 14, 2009

 Five steps to communicating an unpopular decision

How do you communicate something that is likely to be unpopular? For example, how do you tell your team that they are going to have to give something up because of a cost cutting measure that is going to be implemented?

I remember when I was a manager in a large corporate how, in the second half of the financial year we would regularly be told that our travel budget was being reduced by 25%, 50%, or once even 100%.  We got to expect it, and started to build it into our budget at the start of the year. No more travel for the rest of the year, even though you have staff and colleagues in Auckland and you live in Wellington, a 1 hour flight or 700km drive away. How are you supposed to keep a team going in those circumstances?

How do you break the news that there is going to be a review of the organisation’s structure and it may affect many people’s jobs?

How do you tell staff that you need to reduce the number of cars in the fleet, and that the pool cars have to go?

If you have a large number of people to tell, it is tempting to go for efficiency and send out an email – write it down once, send it out, job done.

It is readily apparent that such an approach is not really job done. You have to continue to work with these people, and so you cannot just do anything. You will need them in the future. If they think you’ve done the cowardly equivalent of dumping your girlfriend by text, then it’s likely you’ll get some unanticipated consequences – resistance perhaps, or ignoring the new policy. They decide they can’t trust you, thereby making it difficult to get anything done in future.

Perhaps you go for the more personal touch and tell everybody face to face. Do you do it individually or in group meetings? How do you deal with any resistance? What if people reject the idea, reject you, or even attack you?

I think that for unpopular decisions, the more personal the communications method, the better. The scale and geographic spread of your organisation will have a big influence, but the nearer you can get to a face to face communication, the better. So, phone is better than email. Videoconference is better than phone. In person is better than videoconference.

It’s useful to think about unpopular decisions from the point of view of the decision itself (unpopular outcome), the process of coming up with the decision (fair process), and the opportunity to deal with the consequences of the decision (work arounds).

My suggestion is to use the following structure as your starting point.

  1. Summarise the issues relating to the decision.
  2. Outline the process you went through to arrive at the decision.
  3. Say what the decision is.
  4. Provide opportunity for people to tell you the implications of the decision from their perspective.
  5. Ask them to identify possible actions or solutions in response to the implications they raise.

Of course it’s even better if you already know what the implications of the decision are before you announce the decision. But beware. The implications for you in your position as manager can be quite different from the implications for your people in their positions as direct reports to you.

So it’s more powerful still if you get to your people before the decision is finalised, tell them what you are contemplating and then ask them what the implications are from their perspective. (Don’t assume you know what their perspective is, even if you now them well and used to do their job yourself.) You can then problem solve with them about how to alleviate the negative implications they’ve identified. And you never know, they might identify some positive implications or opportunities you hadn’t thought of.


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