From Out of Touch to Plugged in: The key to employee buy-in

This article was originally published in Forbes on January 20, 2022.

 

Leaders Should Commit to Sharing Info Across the Organization.

A universal phenomenon: The higher a leader rises in an organization, the less ground-level information they receive. Worse still for that leader: there are fewer people in the organization who will give them the unvarnished truth.

If members of the C-suite had a direct and unadulterated line to water-cooler chatter, they’d likely hear regular criticism from frontline employees about leadership decision-making and the sentiment that leaders are out of touch with their own business.

Frankly, for even the most stoic and emotionally intelligent leaders, that stings. The executives we work with feel a keen sense of responsibility to safeguard their organization and its employees via strong decision-making. If their primary responsibility to the company were publicly nitpicked--likely out of context--it would test even the most stalwart leaders.

Why are employees so critical? Most executives are making decent, well-thought-out decisions, right? Well… maybe not.

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Global management consulting firm McKinsey recently released the results of their major study that indicates only 28 percent of executives believe their leadership team consistently makes solid strategic decisions, and 60 percent of executives believe bad decisions come out of their C-Suite just about as frequently as good ones.

Even so, this C-Suite we’ve so cruelly plugged into the water cooler party line may protest. They may remark, as we did above, that the criticisms failed to take into account critical context: Market forces. Supply chain disruptions. Vendor negotiations. Government review. Prioritization of resources. Key valuations from the business case. Back-ordered flux capacitors. OK, we’re obviously joking about the last one. But you’ve been there. And you get the idea: the list of scenarios affecting business is endless.

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Now our C-Suite execs point out, “Well, we couldn’t have done it the way they’re suggesting because of X!”

Exactly what we hoped they’d say. Because this statement opens the door to preventing the perception that execs are out of touch. We know this because of two well-established realities:

  • The vast majority of employees support leadership decisions they have been thoroughly briefed on.
  • Decisions get better with employee input.

 

Most employees will support leadership decisions.

When employees feel leadership is out of touch, it’s because leadership has insulated their employees from the business. Allow us to elaborate.

A survey by Slack of executives at its customer organizations identified that 66 percent of executives create future plans for their business with “little to no” input from their employees.

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So, if our C-Suite points out that the employees were forgetting about variable “X,” it’s likely because employees weren’t made aware of X.

A 2017 Harris Poll indicated that a whopping 91 percent of employees feel their leaders do not communicate effectively about the goings-on of the business. And 52 percent of the respondents believed the reason for that is the C-Suite’s failure to make time to speak with employees.

 

Daily communication is key. 

Most employees don’t really have an interest in making C-level decisions. They reserve their expertise and passion for their area of the organization. In fact, many people who are wired extremely well for their own responsibilities, are wired very poorly for decision-making in complex, uncertain, or volatile situations.

But what annoys any person of any profession (and any wiring), is having what they are passionate about (or at the very least, responsible for) impacted by things someone else is doing--especially when that person doesn’t bother to communicate about it ahead of time.

With a full plate of accountability for other items, it can be difficult for leaders and organizations to maintain dedication to sharing the information they’re working with daily, which is what employees expect.

Building 360-degree communication practices into the beginning, middle, and end of every decision, initiative, or project is how organizations become effective at communication. These practices must extend beyond who “needs to know” and impact stakeholders, and assume that every employee is a stakeholder in everything the organization is doing. Assume every employee wants to be as informed as you are as a leader.

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At the team level, Gallup surveyed 2.5 million “manager-led teams” and the feedback was overwhelming: employees expect daily one-on-one communication with the manager they report to.

This is where we should set the bar.

Yet, this still doesn’t solve the problem highlighted by McKinsey.

 

Decisions get better with employee input.

If 60 percent of execs believe that their good decision/bad decision ratio is 50/50, aren’t employees justified in criticizing the decisions? Even the ones they were well informed about?

A 2014 Scientific American article laid out the findings of several studies that showed a diversity of thought led to improved decision-making, which in turn improved outcomes. Diversity of thought is accomplished by including people of multiple perspectives in the decision-making process.

People with different backgrounds and unique sets of experiences will hold different perspectives. If those involved in making a decision have similar backgrounds, education, culture, geographic experience, and gender experience, those people are bound to share very similar perspectives--and will bring those perspectives to bear on any given problem. When you bring in a diverse group of people with very different backgrounds to work on a problem together, their diversity of perspective will result in diversity of thought, improving the decision-making process and likely the outcome.

The same holds true for making decisions as an organization. Not only do you want the direct team on the business challenge to be diverse[1], but the key to strong decision-making is to add an additional layer to your diversity of thought.

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Organizations of every size are made up of different kinds of professionals. Each function will bring with it a diverse background with a corresponding diverse perspective on your organization. Despite not always having working knowledge of broader market or industry context, your frontline employees are extremely well versed in the day-to-day nuance of your operations. They’re aware of particular problems (and usually the solutions) that the C-Suite would otherwise unwittingly walk into.

This is the kind of diversity of thought that makes involving different kinds of employees from across your organization an incredibly worthwhile practice. Now that we’ve covered the “why,” let’s dive into the “how.” A few simple ways to do this are:

  • Stakeholder input pre-decision
  • Pre-mortem teams
  • Cross-sectional input teams

Stakeholder input meetings don’t need a lot of explanation. For the small amount of time and inconvenience that they require, it’s strange that organizations don’t hold them more often. The direct decision-making team pulls representatives from all stakeholder groups that would be impacted in any way by a decision. They communicate the context, variables at play, and the decision they plan to make. Then they listen to the input from all stakeholders. If the feedback received means more consideration or research is needed before the decision proceeds, then another stakeholder input meeting should be held before pulling the trigger on the decision.

Erring on the side of defining the stakeholders more broadly is often wise. The direct decision-making team should begin by asking the question, “Who could this decision affect, even indirectly?”

Pre-mortem team exercises stem from the healthcare industry and earned the rather morbid title in an effort to prevent the extremely undesirable exercise of a post-mortem investigation. Pre-mortems are used before a decision is made or a project is launched to examine what could go wrong, rather than having to unpack what did go wrong after it already has. This is done by dividing a stakeholder group into two teams. One team dives into what the outcome of the decision or project looks like if things go wrong: what kind of mistakes could be made, what information could get missed, etc. The other team describes what the outcomes look like if things are done right, and defines specifically what those right things need to be. Comparing these two distinct outcomes results in improved decision-making.

Cross-sectional input teams go beyond the stakeholder groups and are utilized more generally by the organization. They are less frequently tied to a particular decision being made than they are in broader subject areas. They can bring fresh eyes that may be entirely unfamiliar with the topic, and will frequently raise questions for which people closer to the problem may have developed blind spots. There is also something to be said for the value of incorporating a more diverse cross-section of the organization beyond direct stakeholders into your stakeholder input meetings or pre-mortem teams.

 

Will it slow us down?

Some leaders have expressed concern to us that if employee input is sought in decision-making, it will paralyze the organization by forcing them to constantly seek consensus or to make all decisions by committee. This hasn’t been the case in our experience.

A leading expert on managing team dynamics and founder of the Table Group, Patrick Lencioni, explores this concept in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Lencioni articulates that people will overwhelmingly buy into a decision, even if they initially had diverging opinions. The key to the buy-in is to ensure that all stakeholders/team members have been heard out on the topic. Lencioni establishes that when people feel their input has been heard and legitimately considered, they will usually support the decision, even if it didn’t go their way.

Even in the case where consensus is not reached and disagreement is present, it is important that participants and team members agree on ground rules regarding the discourse and decision-making as part of the process. It should be made clear at the outset that there will be an executive decision-maker who will be responsible for decisive action if the team reaches an impasse. This again will generate buy-in and support for decisions if all members of the group feel that they’ve been heard and contributed to the factors involved in the decision.

If your company’s managers are worried about the impact to their daily operations, it’s worth noting that these meetings are often incredibly quick and prevent a lot more headaches than they cause. As we’ve noted elsewhere, engaging employees in decision-making this way helps strengthen engagement and trust.

This has the beneficial “operations” side effect of people being more productive than they would have been if their input was not solicited. And far more productive than if you made a decision that made their lives harder without asking them about it first.

 

The best part is the side effects.

When employees are no longer insulated from the business or the decisions guide that it, they are also no longer critical of those decisions. Better-informed employees, and those who buy into business decisions because they were involved in them, support their leaders’ decisions.

However, simply sharing information with employees and getting their buy-in doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing. A business will still encounter challenges and problems. But when employees are included in decision-making in the way we’ve described here, they will be better equipped to (and significantly more willing to) engage those problems on their own.

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The resulting side effect is that problems can be solved at a lower level. This equates to a swifter resolution of issues that might have otherwise dragged on and sucked up more organizational energy and resources. Keeping your workforce informed arms front-line employees with the necessary information and inclination to tackle problems on their own. Even if they don’t feel equipped to address a specific problem, the organization still gains from the employees having a foundation for collaboration and communication with management, which means they’re more likely to quickly bring a problem to the attention of management for a collaborative resolution.

If you’d like help creating an effective and inclusive communication plan or want to learn more, schedule a consult with Wayforward today.

 

[1] This article is not intended to focus on diversity or inclusion of marginalized groups, but when reading any Wayforward material, know that we operate under the assumption that diversity and inclusion are cornerstones of your business. If they aren’t, we strongly recommend you make them such. For clarity, our focus here is the employee groups that are often marginalized by being insulated from decision-making in an organization due to structure or process.

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