When a behind-the-scenes decision must be “downloaded” to employees, the way it is communicated has a lot to do with its acceptance and eventual success or failure.

“Inclusivity” is one of the bywords of the day. Applied to decision making, it means involving as many people as possible in the process — keeping employees informed, soliciting their input, making sure everyone has a fair shot at expressing an opinion. The goal is to increase the likelihood of a decision’s acceptance, and in many cases, this approach is a sound one.

And yet in certain cases, it’s simply impossible to involve anyone beyond a small group. The need for confidentiality and speed are constraints, as is the sheer difficulty of polling an organization of thousands of employees regarding decisions that will affect the entire company. Managers or executives must sometimes “download” a decision to their people after the fact — and that is where many a decision crashes on rocky shoals. Consider these scenarios:

  • An executive team was engaged in merger talks with another company. By mutual agreement, they could not talk about the possible merger, even to their own employees. After the formal agreements were signed, key employees left the organization, the survivors resisted changes in the organizational structure and the merger failed to reap the financial gains anticipated by the executives.
  • Union leaders and company management were locked in contentious negotiations about compensation, work rules and benefits packages. By agreed-upon rules, the offers and counteroffers were not openly discussed with union employees. After months of give-and-take, the negotiators agreed on contract language and put it to a vote. Employees promptly sent the contract down to defeat.
  • An executive-level task force was charged with finding a way to reduce health care costs. After months of discussions with vendors, the group decided on an approach that minimized the company’s health care expenses and preserved quality levels but stipulated modest increases in employee contribution levels. When the decision was communicated, there was an outcry of protest.

Could anything have been done to avert these failures?

When Downloading Fails

There are at least three reasons for ineffective downloading. Some are borne of good intentions; others result from an inability to step into another’s shoes.

Disconnect Between the Two Sides

Consider the process from the perspectives of the decision makers and those who will be affected by the decision. During the process, the decision-making group weighs contradictory evidence, debates interpretations, integrates facts and opinions, and considers the benefits and drawbacks of various alternatives. Over time, the group adjusts psychologically as the decision takes shape. At the end of the process, the decision makers often pat themselves on the back for persevering through all the complexities, uncertainties and quandaries to reach a reasonable and defensible decision. By that time, they have often labored over a decision so long that they believe it needs no explanation. They may even become exasperated by the need to explain something so “understandable” and “reasonable.”

Those uninvolved in the decision-making process have quite a different viewpoint. They may find the decision incomprehensible, bewildering and even threatening. Lacking knowledge of the facts that were considered, the alternatives that were debated and the obstacles that were overcome, they are unprepared psychologically to understand what they have been told. In the face of perfunctory explanations that smack of cheerleading, they naturally revolt — sometimes quietly, sometimes visibly. Jaded veterans of such communicative practices reason that “this too shall pass.”

Failure to Clarify Responsibilities

Decision makers sometimes fail to clarify who has responsibility for communicating the decision. Indeed, some managers believe that their job only involves making decisions. They assume that others will carry them out. In fact, traditional decision-making models give scant attention to communicating the decision. If it is mentioned, it is often as an afterthought. No wonder many employees treat implementation as an afterthought, as well.

For example, the physician-partners in one medical practice routinely held their executive team meetings at the end of a long workday. During a meeting, they would make strategic business decisions but fail to assign anyone to communicate them, assuming that the overburdened office manager would get the word out. When that didn’t happen, others on the staff were left to find out about the changes via the grapevine or happenstance. Consequently, the decisions would not be implemented, and the executive team would spend its next meeting sorting out who was responsible for the communication that never took place.

For example, in its 2005 report to President Bush, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction recommended that the nation’s intelligence agencies change the daily “product” it provided to the president. The commission noted that the two primary agency-generated documents, the Senior Executive Intelligence Brief and the President’s Daily Brief, provided attention-grabbing headlines designed to save busy officials’ time and expedite the information flow. But the documents often failed to reflect the reservations implicit in the decision-making process and frequently left a “more alarmist and less nuanced” impression than analysts intended.

Any organization that lacks an understanding of the decision-making process will have trouble grasping a realistic view of its environment and will as a result have difficulty detecting and correcting strategic or tactical errors.

Interest in Protecting Employees

Leaders often want to screen their people from the worst of organizational anxieties — the possibility of layoffs, financial distress and strategic confusion. For example, when we discussed downloading with some senior military leaders at the U.S. Army War College, one asked, “Aren’t leaders supposed to be uncertainty buffers?” Translation: Why confuse the troops with the messy decision-making process? This officer reasoned that “the troops don’t want to hear all the gory details; they just want the bottom line.”

No doubt, many of his troops did prefer such an approach. Yet what are the true costs of such paternalism? Other officers in the group quickly pointed out that too much buffering may hinder a group’s ability to achieve goals in novel ways when the original plan falters. Indeed, in our research on uncertainty management involving more than 1,000 employees, we found that employees preferred to work in organizations that acknowledge environmental uncertainties. That desire persists even in employees who do not personally feel comfortable with uncertainty.

It may be natural for decision makers to believe they can alleviate employee anxieties by screening out the uncertainties. But uncertainties will eventually be exposed, and employees who hear about them late in the game may not be swayed by reassurances that everything is under control. In short, skilled downloaders acknowledge the uncertainties and focus on collectively responding to them.

How Downloading Can Succeed

To determine how organizations can avoid falling prey to these downloading errors, we interviewed dozens of executives and surveyed more than 300 employees throughout the United States about communication surrounding major decisions. We discovered that executives we call “robust decision downloaders” communicate to employees by discussing how a decision was made, why it was made, what alternatives were considered, how the decision fits into the organizational mission and vision, how it will affect the organization and how it will affect employees.

On the other side, “remedial decision downloaders” provide little or no information on these matters. Employees are often left to discover the answers by chance or through their personal networks. In a third category, “restricted decision downloaders” make more of an effort to persuade people in the organization that their decision was the right one but discuss only a few of the issues that robust downloaders do. (See “The Impact of Decision-Downloading Styles.”)

The Impact of Decision-Downloading Styles

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Our interviews revealed that robust downloaders approach communication as a multistage process, not a singular act. Consider how a utility company in the Southwest downloaded its decision to restructure its benefits package and retirement compensation.

Management knew it was important for employees to hear about the decision internally instead of through the news media. Executives formed a communication committee composed of senior managers, division heads and key front-line employees. They were tasked with developing a plan to announce the change formally.

Following a brief announcement by the general manager, a one-page summary was disseminated to everyone in the organization. Employees were then directed to the company Web site for a more detailed version of the announcement as well as a question-and-answer section. Within two days of the announcement, small-group meetings were held to allow employees to ask questions, voice concerns and interact directly with those involved in making the decision.

Since the decision had a major impact on those approaching retirement, separate meetings were set up for that audience. Following all the small-group meetings, the company Web site summarized the dialogue and added to the question-and-answer section. These follow-up interactions defused ungrounded rumors and allowed the decision makers to explain actively how they had arrived at their decision. Despite the controversial nature of the decision, it was ultimately endorsed throughout the organization, as employees signaled their overwhelming approval in subsequent focus groups held by the company.

A Four-Stage Process

The case of the utility company highlights the four stages involved in successful downloading: planning, announcing, monitoring and responding. Clearly, inept planning and announcing can undermine downloading. But a more common problem is stopping at the announcement stage, thereby forfeiting opportunities to influence employee interpretations as they deliberate over the meaning of the decision and come to their own conclusions about its meaning. (See “The Four Stages of Decision Downloading.”) In short, effective downloaders must be effective at all four stages.

The Four Stages of Decision Downloading

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Planning

At this stage, robust downloaders seek to understand how employees will respond to the decision. They then select the appropriate messages for subsequent phases.

The first critical task in this stage is to gain an understanding of employees’ “conceptual terrain.” Often those in decision-making roles have a very different conception of the state of the business than others do. Facts, ideas and arguments that senior leaders find compelling may have little or no meaning to the average employee.

For example, the leadership team at a paper mill decided to reconfigure its computer systems to provide real-time information to employees about the efficiency and quality of the machines they were using. The ultimate objective, according to communications from the top, was to achieve the kind of growth that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. experienced using a similar approach. While this argument was a perfectly convincing one to management, it was a perfectly frightening one to the mill’s union employees, whose suspicions were aroused by the mere mention of Wal-Mart.

The conceptual terrain can vary greatly within an organization. For example, younger employees will react to a new health care initiative quite differently from their more seasoned counterparts. Identifying groups of employees that will respond in different ways to a decision provides a starting point for proper downloading. The critical questions to ask about each group are: What do employees already know (or think they know) about the facts surrounding the decision? What are the likely resistance points? Who are the opinion leaders? Answering these questions allows decision makers to create the right strategy, message and tools for bridging the differing perspectives.

The next planning step is to create communications that make beneficial comparisons. People make sense of events by comparing them to past events, similar situations or personal expectations. Consider union workers who are asked to ratify a new contract that includes cuts in benefits or wages. Most will compare the new offer to the existing contract and find it wanting. But a communication strategy that compares other contracts negotiated in similar circumstances with the new one may help employees see it in a more favorable light.

Downloaders often get caught up in defending a decision with improper comparisons. For example, defending a new contract by arguing that “It’s not that big of a change” from the previous one is a losing proposition. Better simply to acknowledge the deficiencies and shift attention to a more advantageous comparison.

Finally, decision makers must select appropriate labels, images and catchphrases in the planning stage. Effective labels, images and catchphrases typically share five attributes: they are actionable, linkable, accurate, resonant and memorable. The World War II slogan “Loose lips sink ships” is a good example. But President Gerald Ford’s campaign to “Whip Inflation Now” came up short. The WIN campaign cleverly promoted a memorable catchphrase that, no doubt, resonated with many citizens and was linked to a variety of government initiatives. It was not, however, actionable. After all, what could the average citizen do to whip inflation? No wonder the campaign quickly lost steam.

The Boldt Company recently created an effective campaign to announce an optional Health Savings Account program. Boldt, a consulting, construction and technical services company based in Appleton, Wisconsin, with more than 2,000 employees and more than $500 million in annual sales, introduced the program under the banner of “Wise Choices,” with the image of a newly created character, the Boldt owl, reiterating the theme of wisdom. The communication strategy resonated with employees because choice was a key feature of the plan. The Boldt owl affixed to all communications made the message memorable while conceptually linking health insurance decisions and employee wellness programs. And the message was actionable: All employees had to actively choose their health care plan. These downloading choices likely contributed to a participation rate in the Health Savings Account program at double the typical levels of 25%.

Announcing

In this phase, decision makers with a robust process seek to create an understanding of the decision and bolster their credibility. Five strategies are critical to the success of this stage.

First, the decision makers must choose a highly credible person for the announcement. Credibility is not something possessed by the one communicating; it is bestowed on that person by the audience. Smart communicators know that connecting with an audience involves more than hitting all the right notes — an opera virtuoso and a country and western star can both sing the national anthem, but they appeal to quite different audiences. Often a decision gains immediate value when championed by a high-level person in the organization. As one veteran communications professional puts it, “People need the icon — somebody who personifies the decision and the change the company is trying to make.”

Second, decision makers employing a robust process amplify the message by linking it to behaviors, policies, core values and the organization’s mission. They avoid using a “spray and pray” communication strategy: spraying employees with information while praying for their understanding and motivation.

Amplifying the message helps employees answer two vexing questions: What counts? and How does this fit with what we are already doing? For example, after leaders announce a renewed effort to improve customer service, employees want to know which specific actions or behaviors count toward achieving this goal. General Electric Co.’s CEO Jeff Immelt always comes back to the phrase “for the customer, at the customer.” He repeats the message in many forums while expanding on the idea with different examples. In a sound-bite culture, decision makers need to provide conceptual snacks, but they also must elaborate on the concepts in meaningful ways so that employees have something to chew on.

When new decisions are linked to the mission, they become associated with the underlying logic of the organization. They are seen as fitting into a larger picture, consistent with an already established way of life. In one organization where a particular change was framed as an extension of the mission statement, an employee told us, “It doesn’t seem like such a big deal. It fits into who we are and what we do. It just makes sense.” Decisions that are not linked to the organization’s mission or policies are often perceived as fragmented, unfounded and devoid of meaning.

The third strategy used by robust downloaders in this phase is to highlight the thinking process and the key facts that led to the decision. Consider two different approaches. In one, an executive announces a corporate restructuring with a mere outline of who will be in new positions and an ambiguous rationale based on “better alignment.” Employees are then left to speculate on the nature of the changes and focus on who the winners and losers are. In the second, an executive explains the major issues that were considered in arriving at the decision. In this case, the executive is acting on the belief that creating a visceral understanding of the decision-making process will result in greater commitment to the decision and an ability to respond more flexibly to changing conditions.

Fourth, robust downloaders maintain a balance in their communications between implications for the organization and implications for employees. Employees listen to announcements with ears tuned to two channels: “WIFM” (What’s in it for me?) and “WIFO” (What’s in it for the organization?). Remedial downloaders often make the mistake of broadcasting only on the WIFO channel. The temptation to do so often increases when a decision has the potential to be interpreted negatively by employees. Yet by avoiding the WIFM channel, decision makers undermine their credibility and force employees to seek out other sources of information. Robust downloaders acknowledge both the upside and downside of a decision for employees.

Finally, in a robust process, decision makers use multiple channels and tools to communicate. A single e-mail or even a well-honed PowerPoint presentation can be used to announce a decision but it is unlikely to communicate it successfully. The distinction is critical: An announcement provides information while communication seeks employees’ understanding and acceptance of the decision.

The use of multiple channels facilitates communication because people learn in different ways and pay attention to different features of a message. For example, during oral presentations employees pay particular attention to the dynamism and emotions of the speaker. Conversely, written documents can underscore the core arguments and critical facts that helped produce the decision. Written communication assumes a particularly important role when employees are likely to respond emotionally to an announcement.

Monitoring and Responding

During the monitoring phase, robust downloaders seek to understand how employees are reacting to the announcement. They must root out misrepresentations, misunderstandings, distortions and rumors and then respond appropriately. Effective downloaders use the following strategies:

First, they enlist opinion leaders. The first principle of communication is that “message sent” does not necessarily equal “message received.” While people usually nod their heads when told about something new, they often do not understand the message well. Asking them if they understand is not enough. Opinion leaders actually check employee understanding and help them make sense of a decision.

Robust decision downloaders identify key opinion leaders, determine their understanding of a decision, seek their input and assess their degree of support. If opinion leaders express resistance, robust downloaders address their concerns and determine how to gain their endorsements. In many respects, the buy-in of opinion leaders is the most important determinant of whether the decision becomes fully implemented.

Second, robust downloaders allow employees time to digest the announcement before officially responding to concerns. This delay makes sense for scientific reasons: Cognitive neuroscientists have demonstrated that there are physical limitations to the amount of information that people can absorb in a short period. For example, when people taking part in research are asked to look for anomalous images that are presented close together in time — such as the number of times the letter A appears in a sentence, as well as the number of times the letter O appears — they find it much more difficult than just concentrating on finding one of the letters. The frontal cortex and other brain regions may recognize the first image but fail to process the second one at all. Increasing the interval in which the two images are shown improves the odds that the anomalies will be noticed.

Likewise, responding too quickly to employee concerns can actually hinder the sense-making process. People in the organization simply cannot make sense of all the stimuli at once. For example, a typical union contract consists of hundreds of pages of agreements on issues that include benefits, sick leave, pay and pension. Such contracts are filled with arcane language and legalese, and people in an organization simply cannot make sense of everything at once.

Third, decision makers in a robust environment are prepared to take on thought-terminating clichés. They prefer using rich communication channels, like one-on-one meetings, but comments that stop discussion in its tracks can crop up in such forums. In U.S. politics, for example, once a new initiative has been successfully labeled as “racist,” it is taken off the table, discontinuing further dialogue.

In one Fortune 100 company, the cliché was, “Here we go again.” By linking new initiatives to this phrase, employees subtly resisted change, disengaged from the process and stopped further discussion, regardless of the merits of a proposal. Successful downloaders identify such clichés, expose them and trigger more thoughtful discussions about their decisions. In this case, leaders directly attacked the cliché by presenting a direct counterargument: “This initiative is not one of these ‘here-we-go-again’ ideas and here’s why…” Then they invited employees to discuss the differences between the initiative and others that had failed in the past. This approach sent two very strong signals: first, that the leadership team understood employees’ preconceptions, and second, that the team wanted to move beyond the cliché and engage in serious discussions about the initiative.

Skillful downloaders learn to use resistance as a persuasive opportunity. Instead of minimizing employee concerns, they acknowledge, legitimize and objectify them.

ROBUST DECISION DOWNLOADERS OPERATE with a more enlightened understanding of communication than their remedial counterparts. They perceive communication as a dialogue with negotiated meanings rather than a conveyor belt of transmitted symbols. They realize they have the power to initiate and encode messages — but the members of the organization have the power, in turn, to decode and translate those messages, for better or for worse, in the context of discussions with their peers and opinion leaders. They recognize that effective communication is often the exception rather than the rule, and thus they operate with guarded optimism when planning and announcing decisions. The most effective communicators believe that cultivating an understanding of the decision-making process — with all its tough calls, blemishes, uncertainties and implications for the organization and employees — engenders the most important feature of sustained success: trust.