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Tough decisions defined

Many tough decisions will be readily understood by your subordinates. Some will be understood by some of them. Others will not seem obvious to any of them. So what kind of decisions are we talking about? Take a look at our list in the separate columns to see what kind of decisions are typically questioned or unpopular.

First rule of preparing: prepare

A common mistake that is easily adjusted is forgetting to prepare. A lot of talks with subordinates don’t require much planning – you know which points you need to get across, and you are experienced enough with your structuring to improvise. It’s easy to lean back on this experience and overlook the need for a more planned approach when the consequences of the talk can be more severe. A quick evaluation should be enough to decide if you need to plan ahead how this conversation should play out.

Find the right forum

Some talks should be made in a plenary session, some in a selected group, and some one-on-one. Decide what’s best in your particular case.

Plenary session

Plenary sessions are often accepted with less protest, and played right it can create a feeling of unity; “we’re in this together”. It can also be used to make a strong point, such as “John Doe had to go because he was not a promoter of our company values.” The backside of this, is that people can feel stepped on if they are not consulted before the information is made public. If the decision affects an isolated group of people or less, a plenary session is usually not the way to go.

Group session

In a group session, you get to choose who is involved, at least to some degree. Sometimes a group is preselected, such as a management/executive group or a project team. In a group session, you should expect more discussion, and protests if the nature of the decision should call for it. This is something you can’t, and shouldn’t try to avoid, but you will need to plan for it. Here are a some pointers to prepare a group session:

  • Is there room to discuss the decision, or is it final?
  • Make mind map of the people involved
    • Who are likely to disapprove of your decision
    • Who are likely to support it
  • The big why: formulate clearly why the decision has been made
  • Make another mind map of expected arguments
    • How will employees fight for their case
    • How should you counter these arguments?
  • How can you prepare your words and actions to take care of an employees continued motivation? (more information below)
  • Should any or all of your subordinates have a chance to prepare, either by a one-on-one meeting or by receiving documentation?


One-on-one meetings are a good forum for a lot of reasons, but keep some things in mind:

  • Some things are not right to talk about if the affected employee isn’t present. Don’t give your employees any reason to think “I wonder what my leader is saying about me when I’m not there”.
  • Time alone with a leader can be daunting to some – they might not be comfortable revealing what they are really thinking, and it might come out later, in a more public session, or the employee may keep it inside, becoming demotivated.
  • On the bright side: coaching in the right way can give the employee a good understanding of the why’s that lead up to the decision, which may help both their motivation, and give you support in later group discussions

Time and place

Make sure you have enough time and will not be disturbed. Also ensure that you are in a place where everyone can speak their minds, draw on a blackboard, using the projector etc. In other words – a place where your discussions are not picked up by anyone outside the group.

Consider other arenas. For a one-on-one, a walk can be a great way to get the discussion going, compared to the usual meeting room.

Motivators and demotivators

In 1959, Frederick Herzberg released his theory Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory in the book The Motivation to WorkDescribing the theory in-depth is not in the scope of this article, but the basics of Herzberg’s theory is that the factors that cause satisfaction and dissatisfaction act independently. In other words, factors that increase dissatisfaction in their absence, may not be great contributors to satisfaction in their presence. He listed the factors as follows:


Reasons to make decisions without consensus


  • In your leadership role, you might know things that they do not
  • You may be pressured from other stakeholders, such as the board and shareholders
  • It can have roots in disagreements or disputes between members of your organization, where you have to step in and make a decision
  • Legal or financial reasons may force you to make changes
  • You needed a decision fast
  • You need to consider a long-term strategy – you see the bigger picture

Reasons to make decisions without consensus


  • Cutbacks
  • Changes in organizational structure; people being promoted or demoted
  • Projects being cancelled
  • Changes in budgets
  • Changes in ownership, or acquisitions


  • Growth
  • Recognition
  • Advancement
  • Achievement
  • Daily work
  • Responsibility


  • Salary
  • Status
  • Work conditions
  • Supervision
  • Policies
  • Security
  • Relationship with colleagues and supervisor

On the right are the factors that contribute to increase employee satisfaction. What’s interesting is that the list on the right are not the antonyms of the left list. What Herzberg found in his studies is that there are certain factors that need to be in place for an employee to be happy, but increasing them won’t automatically increase satisfaction. For example, increasing salary is not shown to be an important motivator over time, while the absence of a perceived deserved salary can be a demotivator. Herzberg called these factors hygiene factors, and the expression has become part of everyday speech. It’s the basic package that needs to be in place for an employee not to become demotivated.

When preparing your talk, go through this list and see if there are points you should be extra considerate or clear when you are communicating. Your goal is not to sugarcoat the message, but to take into account the less obvious psychological effects the decision might have. By communicating well, you should be able to get your message across clearly, and address the hidden issues at the same time.


there are certain factors that need to be in place for an employee to be happy, but increasing them won’t automatically increase satisfaction


The project group

The architect firm Brilliant Bricks has assigned a group to a project of great importance; money and reputation is at stake. A few months pass, and it becomes apparent that the project manager, John, while a great employee in all other respects, is not right for the project. As the CEO of Brilliant Bricks, it is your responsibility to make sure the project group delivers on time, and with the expected quality. You make the decision to remove John from the project, and promote his subordinate Jill to project manager.

You take great care during the meeting to leave no room for doubt. There is no chance for John to change your mind, and it is clear that Jill has the mandate to direct the project from now on without consulting John. From a managerial perspective, the decision was made without hesitation, the talk was planned and it was all executed with no room for misunderstandings. A few weeks later, John is badmouthing you behind your back for your lack of resources and support. A few months after that, John (in most regards a valuable employee) quits. After receiving the news, you lean back in your chair, confused; “surely, a smart guy like John must understand the logic behind my decision?”.

The human factor

Logically, perhaps John would understand, but that’s not quite how the human mind works. Take another look at Herzberg list of possible demotivators, and we will list some of those that may have been affected by how the decision was communicated. With a quick analysis we can see that at least three points have been affected.


You, as CEO, see the decision as a purely logical result of how the project has advanced so far. John, on the other hand, sees his status in the flock, that is the project group and organization at whole, is diminished. In his mind, he has lost respect among his colleagues, he has lost face as far as the project is concerned, and the person whom he used to manage has taken his place. This is a big and understandable blow to John’s ego, and it is so deep-rooted in our nature that it overrules logic.

Relationship with colleagues and supervisor

His status diminished, John’s relationship with colleagues and you (supervisor) has changed. Him badmouthing you is not a result of bad character – it is the natural human reaction of John trying to rebuild his status among his peers. People may of course react differently, but in John’s case, he is trying to seek other explanations than his own shortcomings when describing the structure change to colleagues.


Depending on what you communicated as CEO, John might feel he his not secure in his position. He might fear to lose his job altogether, being stepped over in future career opportunities and being further disgraced.

Group meeting

“I never got the resources I was promised. I was second-guessed at every decision. The project was doomed from day one!”


  1. Based on the article you’ve read, think of a situation where you have had to deal with a similar situation. If you can’t think of one, make one up.
  2. Make a plan of who you want to include, and when/where it should be done
  3. For each person, map out:
    • How they are affected emotionally by the decision
    • How you can take this into account, without watering out the original message
    • How you predict they will react
    • How you can address their concerns
  4. Feel free to use the comment field below, and remember that it is a public forum – be mindful about what you share
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