By Barry O’Reilly
Communicating unpopular but critical decisions is challenging for new and experienced business leaders alike.
From financial cuts and project delays to salary freezes or increased workloads, communicating tough decisions is a challenge that all leaders face throughout their entrepreneurial journey.
It’s a hard skill to master, and an important lesson to learn. Yet if you crack the code of better ways to communicate tough decisions, it becomes a force multiplier and competitive advantage for companies dealing with the daily challenges of leading a business in our busy world.
What Makes Tough Decisions Hard To Communicate?
We all have been in companies where tough decisions were made yet communicated poorly.
Sadly I’ve spent too many times wondering where a product pivot, strategy shift, even change of direction came from? I’d sit there in my seat, scratching my head wondering “What the hell?” Blindsided wondering where the boss got such an idea from.
Other times I’ve been on the other side. Delivering bad news, telling a team they’re getting shut down. We’re refocusing our people and resources elsewhere, and all a team’s hard work has come to nothing. It sucks.
Yet what I have learned is there is a way to communicate tough decisions in a better way—and getting it right can have a positive lasting effect even if it initially involves pain.
Bringing people into your world, showing your work, and how you got to your conclusions matters.
By providing clarity on what call needed to be made and why, context for others to know how you got there and the choices considered makes all the difference.
Yes, we live in a world where situations are ever evolving and change quickly. The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) of our business environment is only accelerating.
Similarly the timing of when to share, and what to share is an art in itself.
Yet too many people in the business industry, from senior executives to middle managers, and front-line workers freeze in the face of figuring out how to tell their teams a tough decision. When we should be acting, we’re hesitating. Hence hard to communicate calls get put off, endlessly reviewed, and key decisions postponed—we need to overcome this.
There are steps you can take to help you arrive at and communicate tough decisions that surpass the limitations set by VUCA, or more importantly, ourselves.
3 Characteristics of Tough Decisions
Tough decisions are hard to make, never mind communicate, because they are complex in nature.
With a lot of moving parts, perspectives to consider and people to be heard sometimes piecing everything together and knowing how each dot connects can take all your energy in itself.
Thankfully, communicating decisions can be less tough when you know the right technique to use, like these 3C’s for tough decisions.
As a leader, having these considerations in mind will land your message, even in difficult situations—I know personally from taking this approach numerous times.
Clear, crisp, concise communication is a skill all leaders must develop—especially as the bearer of bad news.
Yet clarity in this instance is not how you talk. Clarity is what decision needs to be made, and why it matters.
When people are clear of the direction, goal or objective of a business it sets the scene for how decisions are made, the purpose and focus up for debate.
If the goal of our business is to grow the company by 25% this year, clearly defining what decision needs to be made and why it matters aligns people’s thinking and focus. —Tweet this
We could launch a new product line, or we can double down in a new market we’re seeing early signs of traction in.
Being told a decision with no aim or clarity regarding the goal causes chaos.
Lack of clarity gives birth to misunderstanding and conflict, with many of your team members assuming wrong things, which could have been avoided by simply stating the decision that needs to be made.
“We’re here today to decide how to grow the business.” Simple, clear and concise—be it.
When we have clarity on what decisions must be made, the next step is to add context.
Misunderstanding often arises when people don’t know how the decision is made—most commonly because information is missing.
Context is painting a picture for people. What information matters? Where did you source it? How did you tie your data points together?
For senior leaders, it often involves giving team members a wider view of where the business, industry or company is going beyond their current scope or focus.
For team members, it is often about providing real time insights from interactions with customers, partners and situations at the front-line of the business.
It’s the decision maker’s job to create context and set it for others when they communicate.
If you lack the skills to communicate the context to your team members, they will see you as an impersonal leader with no empathy toward the people affected by the decision. But with context, it will ground them in knowing that a particular cause has resulted in the tough decision.
I always remember the CEO of one of the startups I work with explaining how he learned the tough skill of letting people go. He shared his system for showing people the perspective he had as the main leader of the business. How sales were looking, challenges ahead, trade offs and opportunities to enrich the receivers view of the world.
Such rich context of what a CEO must look at, consider and choose, allowed people to follow the flow of his thinking, and conclusions—to the point that many stopped him often before he would finish and say, “I get it. It’s a tough situation but I understand”.
Context is what gives meaning and clarity to the tough decision being made. You must understand that everyone in the company operates and understands the decision based on their contexts. So the challenge is how you can communicate the context of the decision to their already existing contexts.
As a team leader, your responsibility is to make choices, whether simple, celebratory, or tough.
Sometimes, your choices as a team leader will be questioned. In such circumstances, how will you react? How can you show people your decisions were the best choice in that moment with the information to hand—and not affected by your personal biases or poor rigor?
It is essential to understand that you should not treat choices as binary decisions—the job is to generate numerous viable options to critique.
Creating optionality even when it feels like the walls are closing in matters to gain buy-in and acceptance that you considered the decision deeply—and didn’t make a snap call off hand without considering the consequences, pros and cons of different possibilities or paths through the maze.
If the rule of 3 ever mattered it’s in moments like these, and using better ways to communicate tough decisions.
Most of the time, choices are made, but people forget to share all the options that were taken into account. Thus, the smart move is to always share the options you considered—three at a minimum—to demonstrate the rigor built into how you came to the conclusion.
Share the options and choice with the people involved, so they will understand how you have arrived at that decision without letting them guess or assume how you go there. It’s a coaching moment for leaders to showcase how your decisions are made—and what you expect of others when they face their own difficult moments.
The True Pressure Test of Your Decision
Providing clarity on the decision to be made, what it is and why it matters sets the scene for better ways to communicate tough decisions.
Adding context brings life and insight to the information you sourced and mattered for making tough decisions in your role as a leader or contributor to a team.
Showing your work, the choice you made based on all the options you considered helps people see the thought process and rigor you committed to the process of making that tough call.
And the best way to test if your tough message landed, if you hit all the points of clarity, context and choices is to end with the questions.
Can you see how I got here? Does my conclusion make sense?
See what reaction you get. My bet is you won’t just be surprised. You’ll be more confident to make tough decisions more frequently—because communicating them won’t be harder, you’ll be better at it.