By Andrew Forrester
There are few things more frustrating than landing on the best choice for your team, only to be met with critique. Consider these next steps as you work towards greater consensus on your decision.
“Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.”
Tony Robbins, American author, coach, speaker and philanthropist
You know that feeling when you buy someone a gift you’re really jazzed about? You’ve given it a lot of thought. You’ve had this person’s wants and needs in mind, and of all the things you could have given them, you chose this particular book or coffee mug or monthly subscription service. And right up to the moment of its unwrapping, you’ve felt good. You’ve made the right choice. This is going to be a gift to be remembered.
Then they open it . . . and all that changes. You can see in their face that you’ve made a mistake, or you’ve misread their personality, their interests, the way they actually function in the world. Making decisions for your team can feel something like this. Whether it’s organizational restructuring, a change in company policy or the rolling out of a new initiative, there’s no amount of thoughtfulness and preparation that can predict how people will react—even when you’re sure you’ve made the right choice. Sometimes, the response is just rumblings and minor frustrations. But other times, you can be blindsided. Here’s what to do when your decisions as a leader don’t have the response you were hoping for.
Listening is essentially the first step in any dust-up related to your leadership. It’s always tempting to get defensive or explain your rationale, and of course, there is a place for that. But that place is squarely after taking a beat to hear your staff’s complaints or concerns. You’ve spent a lot of time with the ideas or decisions you’re sharing, but it’s likely that your staff is just now encountering them for the first time. They need time to process what, for them, is completely new and potentially disruptive information.
Perhaps you’re offended by their resistance – this thing that felt like a gift to be received is instead being treated like something unwanted and unwarranted. Or perhaps you were forced into a difficult spot, and you knew that whichever way you landed, there would be drama. It’s understandable that emotions might be running high in both camps. Still, as the one doing the leading here, the onus is on you to momentarily swallow your pride (or even just your logic) and give your team the space they need to come to terms with your decision. It’s entirely possible that the initial kerfuffle will die down and result in business as usual—or better.
Communicate the Why and the How
Years ago, in the early days of the Affordable Care Act, Psychologist Alex Lickerman argued that explaining the reason behind a choice matters more than garnering agreement around that choice as long as the explanation speaks to a sense of fairness. Lickerman went on to indicate that one of the reasons people are often frustrated with bureaucratic or government policy is that the people in charge haven’t made sufficient efforts to explain their thinking, moral imperatives and reasons for rejecting alternatives.
You’re lucky: you probably aren’t trying to roll out Obamacare or reimagine how healthcare works. You have every opportunity to take your employees through the step-by-step processes that led you to this point. As important will be explaining what comes next: what are the ripple effects of the choice you’ve made and what are the expectations of your employees? How will these next steps be accomplished? Transparency is an easy win, but it’s something we often skip over in the name of expediency. The effort you put in now, however, will be more than worth it when it comes to time saved and headaches avoided in the future.
It’s worth noting, too, that if you’ve skipped this step, you can always come back to it. Even if this kind of pause feels like gumming up the works of your forward momentum, taking time to explain yourself shows your commitment to your employees’ sense of understanding and results in greater acceptance in the future.
Give Everyone Time to Live Into It
Once all that is said and done, your new rallying cry should be let’s give this a chance. This statement is simple but effective, and it does multiple things at once. First, you’ve implicitly included yourself in the team effort; you’ve said we are giving this a chance together. Second, you’ve asked for a little grace from your team as the kinks get worked out. You’ve recognized that things might not be perfect, showing vulnerability as well as realistic expectations. Finally, you’ve acknowledged the fact that whatever is happening is a trial run, allowing yourself the option to change direction should your current course become untenable.
None of these implicit statements needs to stay implicit. Again, transparency is a gift you give yourself in this case. Whenever you can, thank people for joining you in this effort to give this a chance. Remember that there will be speedbumps along the way and ignoring them won’t do anybody any good. Model a willingness to adjust and don’t forget to keep listening along the way.
Document (and Share) Your Successes
Once everyone has lived in the new normal for a bit, it’s time to start collecting, as the kids say, receipts. Document the effects of your decision, whether good or bad. Hopefully, you’ll be gathering lots and lots of positive results, building a bulwark of good news to share with your team. If that is in fact the case, you now have the fun prospect of sharing your success with your team in one of the few contexts where bragging is totally justified. The responses to your decision might have been varied at first, but it’s hard to argue with hard data, and you should be proud of whatever strides you make.
Be Willing to Change Again
If, however, the results have not been positive, you must own it. Most people have worked in a place where no one will admit that something isn’t working. Not on your watch. If things went awry, be truthful about it. Own your responsibility in this and be ready to navigate a course correction, making use of the feedback you’ve already received and soliciting more along the way. Remember, you and your team were just giving things a chance, and having already acknowledged that yourself, you’ve done the meaningful work of making space for possibly going in new directions. Rather than seem like a failure, you’ll look like someone who’s attuned to the needs of your team and your industry. You’ll look like someone humble enough to admit when they’re wrong and push for real growth as a result. When it comes to a boss, what more could anyone want?
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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