First off, apologies for posting so infrequently for the past while. I’ve been on the road for most of the past two months and I’ve devoted all available writing time to my new manuscript. The great news is that I just submitted Chapter 9 and that means only one more chapter to go! I am so excited to share the book with you. Until then, another story from the trenches. This time, about how to get out in front of resistance.
Craig and I were working with an executive team recently that has made the difficult decision to terminate several poor-performing employees. No one likes to have to make this decision, but it’s been made and it’s clearly in the best interest of the organization. The only problem is that some of the individual members of the team have not taken the required steps to prepare for the termination. This has everyone held up.
Does this ever happen on your team? Are there tough decisions that you think you’ve made, only to learn that people are resisting, delaying, or subverting them? The problem might go back to flaws in your decision-making process.
The problem on many teams is that the decision-making process for these difficult decisions is overly focused on the objective, fact-based arguments in favor of (and contrary to) the case. In the termination example, the objective case is easy to make. These people are poor performers and there is evidence that the quality of their work is lacking. It’s easy to tally up the cost of their salaries and relatively simple to show how that money could yield significantly more productivity if invested in someone with more current skills or a better work ethic. The case for the terminations seems iron-clad when you consider only the cold, hard facts.
The decision to fire someone absolutely needs to be supported by facts and in the case of the team we were working with, it was. That’s why they made the decision in the first place. But there is so much more than fact at play in a decision like this. There are deep-seated emotions and values that are seldom made explicit in the decision-making process. When those issues aren’t considered, they easily feed a growing resistance that threatens your ability to get the decision implemented.
Here are a few potential sources of resistance in the termination scenario. You might empathize with how her leader feels.
Kindness and Loyalty: Mary Jane might not be able to find her way around Excel databases, but she is a super nice person. How can I live with myself if I vote to terminate her? Don’t we owe her a job after her 20 years of service?
Fear and Anxiety: I know Mary Jane is going to go ballistic when I tell her she is fired. I don’t know if I can handle that. She’s probably going to start yelling and screaming and that will cause a scene in front of the whole team. Wouldn’t it just be better to keep her on?
Laziness and Disorganization: I can’t fire Mary Jane without having some good documentation about what she’s doing wrong. I just don’t have time to keep track of everything she says. I have so many more important things to do than filling out paperwork.
Guilt and Shame: Mary Jane isn’t keeping up, but I never really told her that. She never had a chance to learn how her out-of-date skills were affecting her. If I’m honest with myself, I set her up to fail. How can I fire her when really, it was me who wasn’t doing my job as her manager?
If those thoughts are happening inside people’s heads, they are going to slow you down. If they stay inside their heads, you won’t know why, but you’ll end up stopped in your tracks like the team we were working with.
Great teams make room for all of these issues as part of decision making. There’s no point pretending the decision is purely rational when it’s not. Instead, encourage people to share their concerns and then address them as just another data set. Some feelings and values might alter the decision, as in the guilt and shame example, where it might be better to invest in feedback and coaching for Mary Jane rather than blindsiding her with a pink slip. Other concerns might only affect how you implement the decision, such as the kindness scenario, where you might use working notice and help Mary Jane find a new position, so she isn’t without work.
When you make room in your decision making for the emotions, the values, and the facts, you face less resistance later. Counterintuitively, I find that most teams that explicitly address the emotional component of a decision end up making a more logical decision in the end. Speaking these things out loud seems to be cathartic. So, if you need to make a particularly difficult decision that is laden with feelings and conflicting motives, you’re best to make room for them in the discussion. Otherwise, you’re sure to discover them when it comes time to implement.