difficult decisions
June 16, 2020

For difficult decisions don’t forget the greasy pole (part 1)

By Paul Laughlin

Continuing our focus on the need for leaders to have tough conversations, let’s face into the difficult decisions behind them.

I’ve previously suggested that “Radical Candor” can help leaders improve their ability to challenge well. Kevin Watson added to that by critiquing the value of feedback, offering a more positive approach.

Let’s dig deeper into the challenges that many business leaders are facing right now. At the precipice of what may the deepest downturn any of us have experienced, the scale of job cuts is growing as feared. Guest blogger, Tony Boobier shares his experience to help leaders communicate well at this time.

Regular readers will know that Tony is a frequent blogger here. Tony is an insurance expert, as well as international consultant, mentor & author. He has shared with us before on related topics including your leadership career, challenging goals & innovating in lockdown. Over to Tony to face into the difficult decisions many leaders need to make now

Difficult conversations = difficult decisions

Difficult conversations are often a euphemism for ‘difficult decisions’. These are unfortunately a part of business life and often personal life too.

It’s a very rare and very lucky person who has avoided either making a difficult decision or being on the receiving end of one. The sad fact is that in the current economic climate, difficult decisions are likely to have to be made more often. So, the idea of thinking about them is a useful exercise.

According to the news, many of us are in for a bumpy ride. It’s suggested that Britain’s economy could shrink by 35% and unemployment soar by 2 million or more due to the coronavirus crisis, so it’s likely there are some difficult decisions that need to be made.

Those difficult decisions, in business, invariably relate to either the performance of an individual or the performance of a business. At least if it relates to personal performance, the recipient has a chance to do something about it.

Facing into personal performance

We’ve dealt earlier with performance management as a topic, but to recap: In the case of individual performance, both parties should try to agree to some form of an action plan. That should have measurable and attainable progress within an agreed timescale. (The old pneumonic SMART comes to mind – ‘Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time framed’.)

In some cases, the recipient of that ‘difficult conversation‘ will personally recognise themselves that their time with that particular organisation has reached a natural conclusion.

3 roles in communicating business performance decisions

On the other hand, the difficult conversation may relate to the performance of a business. Perhaps due to falling sales or changes in customer behaviour. Often there’s not too much that can be done to change the facts.

Usually, there are three elements in the process of making and ultimately communicating any difficult decision. These equate to three different roles who are often involved.

1) The senior decision-maker

The first element of a difficult decision is usually that of the dispassionate party who makes that decision in a relatively impartial way. This person does so without the task of conveying it at a personal level or being on the receiving end.

It’s not always the case, of course. In smaller companies the individual will be personally known to the decision-maker, who may hold that discussion themselves.

For such an impartial executive, a relatively objective decision may have to be made. Perhaps to reduce operating cost by headcount reduction without necessarily knowing precisely how that decision might be implemented at an individual employee level. Nor understanding what ultimately might be the impact ‘on the ground’. Thus is business. Business survival, in many cases, sadly comes above customer service.

But even dispassionate, impartial third parties have a role to play. Especially in their use of language when explaining the situation. I have heard employees being described as ‘human assets’ in the media. This did nothing for employees self-esteem (nor indeed the reputation of the company involved.)

2) The manager communicating the decision

The second element (or role) is that of the person communicating the decision.

Sometimes the person communicating the message hasn’t been involved in any final decision. Such is often the case in larger organisations. Their job is simply to pass on the news. In some cases, they may feel as bad about the decision as the person receiving it. But more often than not it’s just another job in a busy day, and an operational problem to manage.

Often it’s suggested that the person conveying that decision is ‘empathetic’ and puts themselves in the other person’s shoes. But that’s not so easy. Who can really know what another person is feeling, especially at a time like this? What other big issues might be on their mind at the same time? Trying to be too sympathetic can also sometimes badly backfire.

(Paul: Another reason I recommend the balance of Challenge Directly & Care Personally that is explained in detail in “Radical Candor“).

3) The recipient of a difficult conversation

The final element is that of the receiver of that difficult conversation. Let’s take a moment on this, as they are arguably the most important person in the equation.

If it’s a difficult decision, it may come as a complete surprise of which the recipient has no prior warning. If so, they will perhaps only hear part of the message. They’ll inadvertently block out elements of the message or afterwards realise that they had questions to ask.

It’s not a time for elaborate explanations. The recipient usually isn’t able to digest them. And how many people really want to hear that they are being ‘sacrificed’ for the greater good of the wider organisation?

Nor is it usually a time for discussion. By the time the communication about a difficult decision is taking place, more often than not the final decision has been made. There’s often little scope for negotiation no matter how unfair that decision might seem to be.

There’s an old adage of “don’t shoot the messenger” which is fine in theory but doesn’t make getting bad news any easier.

My experience and advice (including that greasy pole)

At a personal level, I’ve been in all three situations. That includes being on both sides of the table giving and receiving difficult decisions (aka ‘bad news’) on several occasions.

Even when I personally received a difficult decision, I have tried to reconcile the situation. Telling myself that if professionally I have had to ‘give it out’, then professionally I have to be prepared to ‘take it’.

Of course, it doesn’t make receiving bad news less painful. But it’s a personal approach that has served me well.

It’s always important to remember that the infamous corporate ‘greasy pole’ allows the individual to travel in both directions. In these difficult times, perhaps there is more ‘grease’ on the pole than ever before.

So, our guiding principle must surely be to deal with others as you would personally like to be dealt with.

Are you facing difficult decisions now?

Thanks for sharing that Tony. That ‘golden rule‘ doesn’t get old. Do others have similar experiences to share? Are you needing to prepare for some difficult decisions and associated conversations right now?

If you’d value a listening ear or some coaching to help you think well at this challenging time, let me know. Part of the response of my business to the coronavirus pandemic is to offer a free leadership coaching session to help you think well. Further details are available here.

Meanwhile, Tony will be returning to share more in part two of this post. There he will get into more detail and share 8 practical tips from his experience. How to plan for and communicate bad news better. Surely a timely skill for all business leaders right now. Best wishes until then.