COMMUNICATING DECISIONS

A common criticism I hear about management, is that they often announce important decisions with little or no explanation, rationale, or indication of the precise results they hope to achieve.  Moreover, these complaints often come from line managers who say they are often required to explain senior management decisions to their workforce, with only the vaguest understanding to back them up.  “Foolish” and “uninformed” are words these line managers often use to describe how they feel.

In today’s business and public sector worlds, “just do it because I said so” is an approach to management that rarely succeeds.  Whether we like a decision or not, most of us want an explanation supporting the important decisions that directly affect us. While I don’t believe that most managers are intent on deliberately keeping their workforce in the dark, I do believe there is often a bit of laziness involved when it comes to thinking through how to communicate a decision to the workforce as a whole.  Even, as is usually the case, when the workforce knows an important decision on some issue is pending — and even when they have had some input during the consideration phase — the effective communication of a final result is a critical component of generating maximum eventual support.

While many small management decisions — yes, you can have Friday off — require little or no explanation at all, as a general rule, managers should spend a proportionally appropriate amount of time crafting an effective communication message, depending upon the importance of the decision itself.  While the exact wording of an important communique is always optional, I recommend attention to the following five guidelines.

First, KEEP IT SHORT.  The attention span of most humans is short to begin with and can easily be shortened further by a plethora of words.  If you write the message for dissemination, I am a big fan of the one-pager and think two pages is the absolute limit.  Whether a verbal or written communication, there is almost always more you can say about an important decision but the essence of an effective message can, and should be, kept short.  The goal is to accommodate the human attention span, not test its endurance.

Second, CLEARLY STATE THE DECISION.  This may sound simplistic but clarity is often obscured by attempts to say too much, or by your choice of words.  So ask yourself the simple question “what exactly did I or we decide “, then write it down and make certain you are satisfied with the answer.  There are times when you will wish to revise the results.

Third, CLEARLY EXPLAIN THE REASONING BEHIND THE DECISION.  The goal here is not to sell your decision to others,  achieve buy-in, or justify your action.  Managers are empowered to make decisions, so they require no justification.  Rather, the goal is to clearly and simply communicate the reasoning that led you to the decision you made. This is essentially a sign of respect for those the decision will impact; it lets them know you thought about the matter with some care and had some plausible rationale for the call you made.  Others are then free to agree or disagree as they will.

Fourth, CLEARLY STIPULATE HOW YOU INTEND TO MEASURE THE DECISION’S EFFECTIVENESS.  Not only is this often not part of a decision’s communication to a workhorse, worse, it is often not a serious part of the decision-making process itself.  Think of this as a variant of the saying “if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?”  Letting a workforce know that you intend to measure results — and sharing the measures you intend to use — is a powerful message that enhances your managerial credibility.  It also reinforces that you understand that “there is no such thing as a decision until you implement it”.  Communicating your measures for success is especially important to those who may disagree with your decision, letting them know there will be a re-evaluation of the results.  And of course, it gives you a method of testing the judgment call and act of faith your decision represents.

Fifth, INDICATE EXACTLY WHEN YOU WILL UNDERTAKE A RE-EVALUATION OF THE DECISION’S IMPACT.  Putting an exact time frame on the re-evaluation process lends credibility to the promise it contains and forces some form of tracking process to fulfill the promise.  But remember, as I have written elsewhere, it is bad management practice to promise the workforce anything you do not — whether deliberately or inadvertently — deliver. Even the most effective communication messages regarding a decision do not serve management well, if any part of their content ends up being false or untrue.

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