How to Minimize Conflict When Making Unpopular Decisions

Most leaders long for the days when their day-to-day decisions concerned what staff training to offer, how to trim the expense budget, and which department needed more support. But for the last two years, we’ve had to make much more complicated decisions on a much more regular basis. Who needs to attend which meetings? Can we remain remote? What’s our policy about masks, vaccines, and testing? How do we enforce those policies? Are employees expressing any specific health concerns that we need to attend to?

The types of decisions we are making have a broader impact than ever before. 

Today, our staff and their families are directly affected by the decisions we make and the policies we adopt. For the first time, we have to factor our staff’s family into our decision-making process. And it can get emotional. 

What do we do when one employee has an autoimmune disease and needs to be extra cautious, and another has children under five who can not be vaccinated? How do we support parents who need a more flexible work schedule without making those without children feel like the parents are getting special treatment? When do we make exceptions to the rules we agree upon? 

Given these concerns, it’s not surprising that those affected by your decisions are more vocal in expressing their opinions and pushing back than in the past. Historically that kind of blowback from employees was rare or periodic; it was not an ongoing situation that required attention. But today, you’ll likely find that your employees are not shy about trying to get their needs met. And suggesting they should hold back when a situation feels scary or untenable for them or their family is not a fair request. As leaders, it is our responsibility to be aware of the potential consequences of our company-wide decisions.

Three steps to minimizing pushback when making difficult decisions

You won’t be able to gain consensus around every decision you make, and trying to do so is often futile. But you can show your employees that you care about their perspectives and wellbeing by engaging them in productive and healthy conversations around company policies and practices. Here are three steps you can take to engage your team in the decision-making process that will mitigate the potential of eliciting a disruptive negative reaction: 

1. Consider all sides of the situation.

Before you make a decision for your organization or team,  you must consider all sides of the situation. Look at the benefits and risks, and determine who will be most directly impacted by your decision. Engage a few people who represent the population that will be most affected by the policy under consideration, and present your plan. Share your concerns and explain why a new policy is needed. Ask for honest feedback and keep an open mind. Find out what they think would be the best and worst outcomes resulting from that decision. Their responses to your questions may or may not shift your thinking, but by engaging them in conversation, you are turning towards your employees. You are letting them know that their opinion matters, that they matter, and that you are cognizant of the impact of your decisions. 

2. Communicate your decision thoughtfully.

Reconnect with the people who assisted you in the decision-making process and share your final decision and the rationale behind it. Thank them for their insights and willingness to share their opinions. This group should know of your decision before it is announced more broadly. They can serve as your informal support team by explaining the process to others. Even if they don’t agree with your decision, if they feel you listened to their concerns and took them into consideration, they may still support you. They can also give you insights into how the rest of the team is adjusting to the decision and if any new information has come to light that might require you to reconsider your decision.

Once you’ve shared your decision with the inner circle,  communicate your decision with the rest of the staff. Share the reasoning behind your decision and let your staff know that it was not made impulsively. While you will probably not be able to please everyone, your transparency about the decision-making process illustrates your concerns about how some team members will be impacted. Remind them that you made this decision thoughtfully, and for the sake of the employees and the organization.

3. Give your staff an opportunity to share their concerns. 

Everyone wants to feel heard and validated, even if they disagree with the final decision. Encourage your staff to discuss their concerns with their supervisor. Instruct your managers to actively listen to the concerns their teams raise. Let them know that you want this solution to be fair and that it is designed to balance the needs of the staff and the organization. Finally, ask your managers to share any concerns that arise that may provide cause to grant an exception to the decided-upon action. 

Being inclusive in your decision-making process not only helps inform your decisions, but it demonstrates your commitment to your employees’ wellbeing. Your thoughtful and genuine concern for others will grow loyalty and trust. And that translates to the bottom line and employee retention.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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