Leaders cannot duck or bury their faces in the mud when making tough calls at work. Leadership is tested when selling unpopular decisions to the team. How do you do that? “My way or the highway” does not work. It gets you obedience, not acceptance. Do you use popular opinion as a work around? Can you?
Yes, you can. It’s a handy trick to use popular opinion for a favorable vote. But it is a trick. You are tricking people to agree to your viewpoint.
Okay, we will get to the HOW in a bit.
What makes decisions unpopular?
We love status-quo. Change or the mere threat of change is unsettling.
Any decision that does not fit into the “work as usual” category brings uncertainties into the equation. Our brains do not react favorably to uncertainties.
It is like asking someone to walk in a strange dark room. The mind switches on the alert mode to sense dangers.
Addressing these uncertainties is the key to get a buy-in from the team.
The trick is to make the tough decision look like a lesser evil.
There is a moral dilemma in Dan Brown’s bestseller “Inferno”. The author asks “will you be willing to flip a switch that would kill millions?” He then adds to it – “if you don’t flip the switch, the entire human race will be extinct in less than a century”.
Flipping this switch is certainly the toughest judgement call for anyone. The answer is a clear NO.
However, when the second half of the moral dilemma is revealed, you are presented with two choices. Not one, but two. What do you choose?
I’d say flipping the switch seems to be the lesser evil. Some may disagree. I’m not sure either.
But now the vote is divided. That is a good sign. Division of votes is the first step to gaining majority. It takes you closer to turning a tough decision into a popular opinion.
How does popular opinion influence team acceptance?
- Option 1: Manager vs the rest of the team
- Option 2: Manager and one part of the team vs the rest of the team
When seeking acceptance of your team on a tough call, which of the above two is likely to be a winner.
Certainly Option 2.
In the first scenario, it is easier for the team to corner the manager and counter attack. When everyone in the team opposes a new proposal, the team has a common goal. Unity in opposition makes them stronger and rigid.
“Everyone cannot be wrong. This certainly is a bad decision.”
In the second scenario, some of the team members agree to the manager’s viewpoint. They see some merit in the new proposal.
Suddenly the idea is not an outlaw. The rigidity and opposition from the rest get weaker.
Majority votes and popular opinion help in getting everyone to accept the new normal. Some wholeheartedly, some with a few doubts. However the resistance is not as strong anymore.
How can you use popular opinion?
How to convince one half of the team to agree to a tough, not “work as usual” decision?
We need to take a cue from Dan Brown’s Inferno – make the new idea a lesser evil of the two. Preempt opposition to a new idea or change. If its really a tough decision and you foresee stiff resistance from the team, you need to work on the storytelling.
Strike off the idea to simply communicate the decision as-is to the team.
No autocratic approach. Turn to democracy.
Democracy to function needs at least two choices. That is exactly what you need to present to the team. And you need to build the case to use popular opinion in your favor.
Confused? Okay, let’s use an example
Your company has had a couple of bad years. Growth has been minimal. There are lot of businesses across several industries in a similar soup due to the prolonged global pandemic.
“No raise this year” is the company mandate. You need to convey this decision to your team. Tough decision?
Without a doubt, YES.
What do you do?
Option 1: You call for a team meeting. Your long face indicates there is a bad news. You talk about the bad couple of years and lead the team to the bad news – “No raise this year”.
There is an usual commotion and resentment. But the decision is not up for a debate. So everyone carries themselves back to their desks. You could here the silence in the office after this meeting.
Can there be a better way? Yes – Option 2
Option 2: You work on your story. A short story with some data and some drama.
Put together a couple of slides to show the sales trend vs cost. Use bold font and color. RED is everyone’s favorite to present poor performance.
Pick the bottom performers. Start meeting your team members individually or in groups of two or three. Do not talk about the decision, rather discuss the context.
The business is going though a really bad phase. No signs of sales picking up in the short term. Cost cutting seems to be the only way forward.
When you send such feelers to the team, what is the first thing that pops up in everyone’s mind?
You guessed it right – job cuts. The team starts discussing probable layoffs to cut costs. Who goes first and who follows gets discussed during coffee breaks and internal employee chat groups.
You’ve set the cat amongst the pigeons. Some or a majority would be worried.
Now you call for the team meeting and present your data slides – the bold RED trend lines.
Let the message sink in. Time for some diplomacy – tell them how this is one of the best group of employees and you are sure if everyone works together, better days are not too far.
They need to believe that you want to keep the group together and save everyone’s job. For the greater good, everyone needs to take a little hit. Now, propose option number 2 – no raise this year.
“We need to stand united when sales has plateaued. If we could stay together as a team, I’m sure we could turn things around in a quarter or two.”
Propose “no raise this year” as a viable option to some losing their jobs. A lesser evil.
How does this help?
This does not make the decision favorable. It reduces the force of the impact like how an air bag does in a car crash.
You have tricked the team into accepting the lesser evil. Not all of them, but one section of the team. From stiff resistance, you have moved them to a soft spot.
What do they choose? No raise or some of their colleagues getting fired?
From zero support, you have converted the tough decision into a popular opinion in the team – Lets save jobs.
Is that the end of it?
No, it is just a start. Remember, when you use popular opinion to get acceptance to a tough decision, you have managed to avert any immediate unfavorable reaction.
Individually and in groups, the team will go over the context and the decision several times. But you have bought yourself some useful time for damage control.
Keep communicating with the team. Do not let the morale drop.
Go out of your way to inspire and guide them through the tough decision.
Tricking your team to use popular opinion in your favor was not an ideal strategy, but again it is a lesser evil when compared to passing on the bad news to the team as-is. You as a leader of the pack have to cushion the impact.
You need to sell hope in adversity.
Participation in the decision making process lets you use popular opinion in your favor
By choosing not to directly convey a tough decision and building a case with more than one option to choose from, you let your team participate in decision making.
Participation in decision making is empowering.
When you put an empowered group in a room to debate two contrasting ideas, there seldom is unanimous voting. If you craft your story well, there is always a way to present the tough decision or the bad news as the lesser evil.
Can you manage to do that? If yes, you’ve managed to use popular opinion to gain acceptance for a tough decision at work.