How Do I Best Make Unpopular Decisions?

The team is reluctantly gathering in the conference room for the weekly management meeting. On the agenda: how many people will we have to let go? Yes, no matter how you call it, reorganization or restructuring, or whatever veiled term you want; it's still about laying off your friends in favor of digitalization. Decisions you'd rather not take, and if you really have, then you don't want to take them alone. So you're facing a double dilemma: how to make the unpopular decision, and how to involve an equally unwilling team in the decision. Gah.

If only there was a way to escape from this decision situation... This, or any other nasty strategic dilemma.

Why Must We Face the Music?

A man with first-hand experience in severely unpopular decisions was Andrei Sakharov. He was a Russian physicist involved in the development of the nuclear bomb. He became concerned about the moral and political implications of his work and took to the press to disclose his reservations on the arms race. For that, he was banned from applied research, targeted by the Russian media as a traitor, and banned to Nizhny Novgorod. It took over ten years and a new head of state before Andrei could return to Moscow, but he did win the Nobel peace prize in 1975.

He minded most the pressure exerted on his family and friends. Being a dissident is extremely hard, and survival depends on the protection of family, friends, employers and colleagues. Like us, dissidents also want to be liked and to belong. Why take unpopular decisions that cause them discomfort, pain and anxiety? 

Well, because you have to keep them safe in the long-run. Which is also our job as executive decision-makers.

“We want to be liked and to belong. Why bite the hand that feeds us?”

Andrei Sakharov

How Bad is Our Desire for Conformity?

Because we have a hard-wired need to conform to our social group for survival, we find it very difficult to make such unpopular decisions. Many scientific experiments were done to find out how difficult. Two of them made the top ten of most famous experiments in history. The first is the experiment by Solomon Asch in 1955 and the other by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. Both experiments show how much courage it takes to not conform and stand up for what you feel is right.

Experiment #1: Ash Conformity

Groups of eight subjects were shown two cards. One with a reference line and another with three lines of various lengths. The subjects were asked which of the three lines is of the same length as the reference line. Of the eight participants, seven were actors and one was a true subject. Prior to the experiment, all actors were given specific instructions on how they should respond to each picture. They would always unanimously nominate one comparator, but on certain trials, they would give the correct response and on others, an incorrect response. The real participant was always asked last.

Guess what: Only 25% of the sample consistently defied the majority opinion and 5% was always persuaded by the group. Would you yield if you knew you were right?

Experiment #2: Psychology of Evil

Twenty-four stable and healthy college students were asked to play the role of either prisoner or guard in a two-week prison simulation. The experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days, as psychological torture occurred. Many of the prisoners passively accepted that and those who resisted were harassed by other prisoners at the request of the guards. Only two of the prisoners quit the experiment early and five of them had to be removed.

It seemed that the situation rather than personality caused the participants' behavior. The harsh conditions and the overt power difference between the two groups supposedly played a big role. But other factors could have influenced the gruesome outcome. Participants are likely to do what they believe the researchers want them to do: a willingness to conform so high, that little was needed to engage in cruel behavior.

Both studies make a very clear point about social pressure. In business contexts, we often discuss this phenomenon under the title groupthink. The term was coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972). It occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment".

Courageous Leaders Seek Out Dissent

Too often, leaders learn about alternative options after they've taken an unpopular decision. The team may be too conformist, the leader too resolute or too fast in labelling dissent as negativity and criticism. But looking for and accepting dissent is a crucial factor that differentiates business failures from successes.

As a futurist, I am often included in strategic discussions, and it's up to me as a moderator to elicit dissent in a positive way and use it to improve the decision-making process. Here is how I work:

Using dissent

> Probing for the first contribution

Ask explicitly for multiple opinions: "What are the various possibilities that you all see?" When the first opinion is given, force the contributor to decide firmly and boldly: "What would YOU do?". Avoid a decision by the group, leave the responsibility for the decision with the contributor. Ask him/her: "Why would you do that?" and "What evidence supports that approach?" Cajole and encourage to get the contributor to speak up.

> Involving the team to dig deeper and broaden the scope

Then you ask the others to elaborate on the first opinion, instead of moving on to the next opinion. This forces people to reframe their opinion into building blocks that make the initial judgments more robust. To get building blocks on the table, you can ask the team these questions:

  • Ask the other team  mebers about the first contributor’s idea. Any pros, cons, drivers, barriers, examples, viewpoints from stakeholders, related developments, and so on.
  • Ask the team what alternatives they see arising from the discussion. What would drive those?
  • Ask rhetorical questions, like: "how can we know?"; "why bother?"
  • Specifically invite the wall flowers  to take part and tell them why you value their opinion. Frame the discussion int their area of expertise to make them more comfortable

> Fleshing out the discussion

Write along with the discussion on a blackboard or flip-over to avoid getting side-tracked or biased towards a certain option or contribution. Make it an achievement to "get your idea on the board".

Do not organize your keywords per contributor or per alternative. Instead, use themes to organize the contributions, such as: causes (context), effects on customers, effects on the company (positive/negative), effects on the competition or collaborators, and possible responses. This frames the discussion on the contribution instead of the contributor. 

> Finishing strong with a firm, actionable decision

You now have the best overview of every aspect of the decision-making situation. You and your team have developed a detailed and structured overview that you could not have developed on your own. Now is the time to turn the overview into action.

  • When the exploration runs dry, recap the themes on the blackboard
  • Develop strategic options that flow from the themes, not the contributions. Connecting themes will help you find new possible solutions that would not have emerged otherwise. The themes also bring insight in how to implement solutions, because you already explored the decision-situation. So you could stop here.
  • Sometimes, you can make your decision-making even more powerful if you can include multiple solutions into a new one. When you were able to elicit multiple strategic options in the previous step, it's likely that you can level up. Try to name each solution and summarize them using pros and cons
  • Now ask your team to find common denominators for two or more solutions. The commonality between solutions is proof that a higher decision-making level exists. 
  • Ask the team for a new solution based on the commonality

Back to your decision situation

If you want to make sure that you're taking the right decision (right means: that taking it will keep them safe in the long run), then why not give this process a shot. 

Kicking off the discussion with a question about possibilities will help your team to search for positive angles. It will reduce the 'let's get it over with asap' sentiment. Diving deeper may let new solutions emerge. At best, you may find an alternative to lay-offs or any other strategic issue altogether. At wordt, you still have to let people go, but in the certainty that you've explored all options that you could possibly be aware of.

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