Decision Downloading

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.

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