Communicating difficult decisions

People in leadership roles are often asked to make decisions that have broad implications for the rest of the organization.

A good decision-making process aims to give everyone a voice, but rarely should it give everyone a vote (an important and underappreciated distinction). However, sometimes even the former is not always possible.

Even once you’ve made a decision, the hard part is not over. Now it needs to be thoughtfully communicated to everyone that’s affected by it.

After getting this terribly wrong several times and having to deal with the backlash, I was able to identify a few key pieces that seem to make some communications better than others. Is it the perfect structure? Probably not. And of course, it needs to be adapted to the specific context every time. But it seems to put me on the right track much more so than starting from a blank page each time.

In any case, here it is:

Outcome → Trigger → Options → Decision → Empathy → Dialogue

(Sorry, haven’t come up with a neat mnemonic yet)

  1. Outcome — the decision that we made. No sugar-coating. No lengthy preamble. Those who care less about the decision, or were heavily involved in the decision-making process will usually stop here. Those who are heavily invested but were not heavily involved will read on.
  2. Trigger — decisions are not made in a vacuum. Usually, there was some trigger that led us to re-examine the status quo and consider a different path forward. We can’t assume that everyone has that context, and understanding this “why” is an important piece in buying into the outcome.
  3. Options — this is the “show your work” section. Give more details about the decision-making process. Who was involved? What other options were considered? When this part remains opaque some people will assume the worst: that you made the decision out of ignorance and didn’t even consider “their” solution. By providing more visibility into the options that were considered, rather than just the option that was selected, we’re making it easier for everyone to assume competence and positive intent.
  4. Decision — re-iterating the option that was picked and explaining the rationale behind picking it over the other options.
  5. Empathy — acknowledging the imperfect outcome, and that there are negative consequences for some people or that some people will be disappointed or frustrated by going with that option. Creating the space for those emotions and normalizing them.
  6. Dialogue — an invitation to continue the conversation. Even though the decision was already made, some people may need further processing and dialogue in order to come to terms with it. And sometimes, certain edge cases will require further action / making amends.

Here’s a fictional example of using this structure announcing a benefits cut:


[Outcome] Starting 1/1/18 we will no longer be able to offer a monthly gym stipend to our staff.

[Trigger] As part of our 2018 budgeting process, the People team was asked to identify a way to reduce our benefits budget by $100K to help ACME Corp extend our runway to 2 years before we have to raise another round.

[Options] We considered several ways by which we can drive this reduction, including (but not limited to) reducing the matching in our 401(k) program, increasing the employee participation rates in our healthcare program, and not offering a catered lunch in one of the days of the week.

[Decision] We favored reductions that don’t have a direct impact on people’s take-home pay over ones that do; and reductions that impact some of our staff over ones that impact all of it. This was not an easy decision to make, as all options have some negative consequences, but the rationale above led us to pick eliminating our gym stipend as the best way to meet our reduction target.

[Empathy] We know that some of you may be disappointed, or even angry by this decision. It is a completely normal reaction to something that has an unpleasant consequence for you.

[Dialogue] If this decision creates a particularly challenging circumstances for you, or if you just want to learn more about the process that led us here — we’d like to invite you to reach out to us. We’d be happy to share more details or think through creative solutions where needed.

— The People team.

Communicating difficult decisions

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