How To Handle Those Really Tough Decisions In Your Organisation

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So you’ve realised the need to take crisis action to bring your organisation back on track. Perhaps you’re having to implement radical changes to terms & conditions, to shake up working practices, or to introduce redundancies. You’re clear about the strategic imperative for this, you know your legal responsibilities, and your mind is fixed on a course of action. But how do you implement such tough decisions and still keep your staff engaged? The solution lies in intellectual and emotional clarity.  This is one of the essential skills of contemporary leadership. It’s difficult to get right, so here’s a structure to steer your interventions.

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Many clients say that it can be a lonely experience leading these difficult changes.  In the current funding climate a number are feeling sorely tested. (“I didn’t take on this job to dismantle services and implement compulsory redundancies!” “Staff are so angry with me, I dread going into work at the moment.”) These leaders face a really difficult dilemma. For the sake of the survival or their organisations they know they have to act fast to implement tough crisis decisions that will have major negative consequences for their staff. But they also know that they are completely reliant on staff going that extra mile to help bring the organisation back on track. So they have to find a way to engage staff and sustain their goodwill by helping them to understand why these hard decisions are being made.Some clients admit that in the past when they faced tough choices they became detached and hard to avoid the guilty feelings that their decisions stirred up in them. “I wanted to ‘slap’ staff who become angry or distressed – couldn’t they see what a mess we were in?”  Others felt so overwhelmed by their statutory obligations that they became mechanistic (“I followed a tick-box consultation just to cover my butt!”). But these approaches made things even more difficult for the organisation. So leaders actually need to do the opposite: to remain conscious and articulate about the unhappiness that your decisions might cause people, whilst being totally clear about why these decisions are necessary. As one clinical director put it: “You have to feel the pain and do it anyway – as compassionately as possible” …mindful of the fact that it’s awful to have to deliver bad news, but even tougher to be the recipient. 

 


To do this you have to attend to two parallel issues simultaneously: one is to engage people in the logical rigour of the decision-making process itself; the other is to attend to the emotional impact of the decisions on individuals. If you want people to engage with the logical changes that you are introducing, you have to be in sync with their feelings. And if you want staff to manage their negative reactions to your changes, you have to present a coherent case for for the judgements that you are making.

There are two things that infuriate staff. One is being shut out from the decision-making process. More so if they could have made an important contribution, and believe they would have reached a better quality decision themselves. The other is having their emotional reactions stifled by leaders who put a Pollyanna spin on their unhappiness.  (“I’m afraid your post will be made redundant, but at least that solves your work-life balance, eh?!”) So how do you attend to the decision-making and emotional dimensions of your leadership role? Let’s take each dimension in turn.
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The Decision-Chain
When presenting a difficult issue to your staff, you may be very clear in your own mind about why your decision is necessary, but it can really help to walk them through a structure such as the 6 elements in the decision chain below. Each element needs to be tested separately in sequence, to ensure that people have really understood the case that you are arguing.
 


1.) Dilemma – Have we articulated and refined the problem? What is the dilemma that we have to solve? (eg. We are heading for a serious overspend that threatens the solvency of the organisation. We have to balance the budget now.)
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2.) Data – What are all the relevant facts? Have we captured all the evidence available? (eg. There is no obvious funding to bail us out this year. Staffing costs make up 80% of our operational budget.)
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3.) Options – What options are available to the organisation? Have we explored all realistic alternatives? (eg. We could merge, share back-office functions, or share our CEO post.)
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4.) Impact – What are the personal and organisational implications of each option? Do we fully understand the risk in each case? How can we mitigate against negative effects? (eg. What packages of support can we put in place to support staff at risk of redundancy? How can we motivate those staff who remain?)
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5.) Solution – Have we distilled this information thoroughly? What conclusion have we reached about the best way to resolve our dilemma? (eg. We have no choice but to cut our staff posts by 25%.)
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6.) Action – What is the course of action for implementing our solution?
.In the pressure of a crisis meeting when tensions are running high, leaders can be thrown off course by the intensity of feeling in staff who are fearful for their jobs. Individual staff may be fired up by different issues in different segments of the decision-chain. One may point out additional options (“We don’t have to cut posts, we could all agree to working fewer hours.”) while another will question the original dilemma  (“We don’t have to balance the budget, we can use up our reserves.”) and another will raise new concerns about the impact (“If we cut posts now we won’t have the capacity to to deliver the services we are contracted to supply. The council will terminate our contract, and that will finish off the organisation.”). It really helps to lead people back through the structure, so that each contribution can be put in context. 

Remember that it isn’t a democratic process, and many staff may not agree with your conclusions, but this is an opportunity to listen to alternative perspectives and be really clear in your own mind about your decisions. The most important thing is that people understand the dilemma that the organisation faces, and get to walk in your shoes – so rather than get yourself boxed into a corner by a barrage of questions from staff, remember to keep asking questions yourself, link these to each stage in the decision chain, and really listen to the answers that staff give.

Many leaders are very familiar with principles of employee engagement, and place great value on staff contributions in business planning and scenario forecasting. But even when staff are kept in the loop, the reality of crisis decisions can still come as a shock. The tougher the decision that has to be taken, the more likely it is to rest on your shoulders as a top-down process without a lot of room for manoeuvre. So it is essential to be clear about what issues are up for debate, and what elements are fixed in stone – staff are infuriated by token consultation on issues that have long been decided. Even in severe consultations there should be scope for staff input into impact assessments and mitigation of negative effects, and in the action planning stages.

 


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Emotional Life
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Many people will recognise this diagram – charting people’s emotional reactions to difficult changes – but not everyone fully understands the implications of the curve for change leadership: People experience four different emotional stages when change is thrust upon them:

1.) Shock – in which they feel numb and stunned, and have very limited ability to think clearly.  They might deny the implications of the news, or even weird feelings of euphoria.
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2.) Emotional turbulence – in which they are consumed by sorrow, anger or guilt. They may have emotional outbursts, or might withdraw and need time on their own to make sense of their feelings.
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3.) Depression – in which they churn over the implications of the changes, and start to make sense of what is happening. They will feel emotionally flat, demotivated and resigned, and this churning will sap a great deal of emotional energy from them, so it is likely that their productivity will be low.
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4.) Gradual acceptance – in which they start to re-enage, come to terms with the consequences of the changes, integrate these into their everyday context, and look ahead more optimistically.
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What are the implications of this for leaders introducing difficult changes? One significant feature is that you are likely to be ahead of your staff on the curve. Chances are you’ve had the shock of realising that you have to take serious action, have run the gamut of upsetting emotions, and are galvanising yourself into action by introducing these decisions. This can make it more difficult to empathise with people who are still in a state of shock, or feeling emotionally wobbly.  People experience the transition curve at different rates, so different staff will be at different stages  – and their progress is never as neat as the diagram suggests, so keep an eye on how people are and adapt your interventions accordingly.

1.) When in shock, people won’t be able to take in much information that you give them, or to grasp the full logic of your decision-chain, so explain the headline features and provide clear written information for when they are in a calmer frame of mind. Acknowledge that people may be in shock, explain the stages that you will be taking for consultation and implementation, and reiterate that there will be future opportunities for discussion. Show that you have considered the impact of your decision by outlining what support you would like to make available. Time your input to minimise disruption to the working day, and to make sure that staff have time to get over the initial shock before they head home. Don’t put a “Pollyanna” spin on things by pretending that the circumstances are good, but do reiterate the positive bottom line that you are after (“If we can implement this redundancy programme now, the organisation will be more robust for the future.”).2.) When in a state of emotional turbulence, people will need help to recognise and name their feelings. Ask them how they are, and what support they need. Articulate your feelings (“I feel really uncomfortable having to break this bad news to you, cause I imagine it must make you feel very frustrated.”)  Walk in their shoes and recognise what they are going through. You are their most likely target for hostile feelings, so be prepared for that, and build in time to debrief afterwards.  Be strong and containing to model that you are capable of holding the organisation together through this difficult period. Carefully acknowledge the emotions you are noticing (“You sound angry with me at the moment, which is understandable given what you’ve just been told.”) and resist the urge to attack back. At the same time, you don’t have to endure abuse, so if any meeting gets out of hand, end it and schedule a follow up event – you need to model the fact that there are limits and that discussions have to be dignified. 

3.) Staff will reach a depressive stage in which they feel they have no choice but to accept the changes, so factor in a period of demotivation when productivity will drop.  It’s easy to be sucked into their sense of hopelessness at this point, which might churn up lots of helpless feelings in you. (“It felt like wading through treacle!”) The instinct is to go into “rescuer” mode and try to find practical solutions to their problems, when in reality these will be rejected because staff are really seeking affirmation for their feelings of resentment. So acknowledge that it is difficult for them, make an effort to understand what people are finding most difficult, and keep asking them to identify what would make their tasks more manageable. Notice those things that individuals are most interested in, and really focus on developing these. As they “churn” they will be incorporating the changes, so this is an opportunity to make some adaptations and to flesh out the practicalities of how to the implement the plan.

 


4.) As staff gradually accept the changes, the mood will become more positive. This is the time to pick up the pace, become more challenging, and really stretch them with questions about how they see themselves implementing their part in the programme. These are the activities that leaders are most familiar with – that some leaders try to implement prematurely, at the point when staff are still in shock and not ready to engage. If you can hold fire until staff are showing signs of acceptance, you stand greater chance of succeeding.  Again, remember to acknowledge the fact that staff are more positive, and be appreciative of their progress.
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When people are confronted by painful scenarios it tends to trigger “paranoid” anxieties, so it’s essential to emphasise the values and principles underpinning your decisions, and to act with integrity throughout. Keep the overall focus of your decisions on your organisational mission and your service users, but focus your implementation on the needs of your staff – give them permission to look after themselves, and help them to direct their energies at what they can control. Encourage them to have a “Plan B” in mind for their worst case scenarios – so that they can set aside these anxieties for the time being. (“We’ve done everything we can for now, and we’re not going to let ourselves worry about it unless it becomes a reality.”). The bottom line with difficult change is that feelings need to be understood, named and appreciated rather than bottled up. It’s once these can be fully acknowledged that your staff will begin to reconnect with their creativity and passion for the organisation.
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