Building Support for Tough Decisions

Over the past couple of years, IT managers have been forced to make a lot of tough decisions. Budget cuts, layoffs and project cancellations became commonplace occurrences. But just because we may be seeing the beginning of an economic recovery, that doesn't mean we're at the end of the hard choices.

In my experience, IT investment doesn't recover until a year or more after business starts to improve. Budget cycles and managerial caution intervene to slow improvements in the IT workplace.

What will return to your IT shop more quickly than your budget and head count is the sense among the staff that decision-making can go back to normal. During emergency situations like the economic meltdown, decisions have to be made hurriedly, without a lot of consultation. Now, with things looking better, managers should have more time to contemplate their choices and build support for decisions.

Perhaps, though, you've gotten a little too used to being able to make choices and impose your will in a dictatorial, emergency-driven style. It might have felt a little heady in the midst of crisis to have your people look to you for decisive plans and instruction. You shouldn't get too comfortable with that feeling. The support from the staff that managers have enjoyed recently can, and probably will, evaporate just as quickly as it materialized.

So, before you face a full-scale rebellion, this may be a good time to start thinking more carefully about building support for decisions that just a few months ago you were able to promulgate by fiat. The most important thing to remember about the support your staff gives you is that it arises more from emotion than from reason. Even if you can present a tightly reasoned argument about why your decision is good and why the staff should follow you, that may not be what you need in order to sway them. You will have to pay attention to your staff's feelings about several things.

Self-interest. Clearly, people are most interested in how a decision affects them personally. If they feel that a decision will be good for the group but bad for them, they may resist. And resistance brought on by self-interest could be compounded if people feel that during the economic crisis they have had to accept things not in their short-term interest. If they suffered pay cuts, were forced to work more hours or got stuck doing distasteful work because the staff was thinner, they may be looking for payback now that things are getting better.

Group benefit. Though self-interest trumps this, people also care about the effect a decision will have on the group. Not many are willing to subordinate their own self-interest to the good of the overall group. But most people most of the time are going to want to see both a group and an individual payoff.

Fair process. In most cases, it is easier to build support for a decision as it is being made than it is after the fact. When it comes to especially difficult decisions, everyone knows that there will be winners and losers -- that's why the decision is difficult. But those who are among the losers will have a much easier time accepting the decision if they feel that their case was heard and everyone's perspective was represented during the deliberation. If they lose fair and square, they are more likely to support the outcome, even if they don't like it.

So remember that your days of just telling people what to do are numbered and that you need to build support if you want your orders to be transformed into action. And getting support during good times is much harder than it is in times of crisis.

Paul Glen is a consultant who helps technical organizations improve productivity through leadership, and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2003). You can contact him at info@paulglen.com.

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