A Guide to Making Unpopular Decisions

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You may remember from previous pieces here that I was pretty distraught, at the age of 10, when my favourite footballer, Gary Lineker, was sold to Barcelona for a club record £2.8m. The same was true, to a lesser extent, when Wayne Rooney was sold to Manchester United for £25m many, many years later. Everton’s most promising home-grown player for generations, a “true blue”, and he was now playing in that garish red of the team down the road.

Both of these decisions were wildly unpopular with the fans, creating an “end of the road” feeling, at least for a few months. However, the result was that after the sale of Lineker, Everton went on to win the league. After the sale of Rooney, Everton went on to qualify for the Champions League for the first time. Unpopular decisions stem from rational objectives, and require special management if that objective is to be achieved.

For example, much as you may love that winter coat, you can’t wear it when spring starts to turn into summer. You have to let it go. Your aim is to stay cool, not to stay warm, and sentiment doesn’t enter into the equation. Hang it up. Let go. Move on.

Marissa Mayer’s unpopular ban on home working

Oh, the hue and cry. Read the blogosphere and the HR community is up in arms. “We’ve got the figures”, they scream, brandishing data that proves – really proves – that home working is a huge benefit not just to the business but to the environment. Marissa Mayer’s responsible for rising sea levels, apparently.

The other side of the coin, however, is that Yahoo’s ingrained “WFH” culture (they even have fridge magnets in the Yahoo shop celebrating it), is doomed. It’s doomed because it was managed badly. The atrocious management of home workers led to a negative culture with a silo mentality. Those who came into the office resented those who stayed at home, accusing them of laziness, sloth, and even running their own businesses while on the Yahoo payroll.

Mayer is also transitioning Yahoo into a true competitor to Google and Facebook. She’s already started, with free food and smartphones as part of the employee package, but she has a way to go. Her aim? To increase interactivity, connectivity, and above all, innovation. I asked my local HR Consultant Nicola Kibble for her opinion on home working, and she told me:

“If you need to collaborate on projects, then you need to be together in the same room; if you need to talk an idea through, you need to know which colleagues are suitable and available for you to do this; if you need to concentrate on detailed and precision work, then I suggest you work from home (subject to considering work space).”

This decision will work. It has been hugely unpopular, and it potentially has more than one objective. Yes, Mayer needs to change the culture in order to change Yahoo’s proposition. However, Mayer also needs to “remove the dead wood”, and if the perception is that the dead wood works at home, go with the perception. Shake it up.

A blanket ban on home working may appear myopic, but it’s the quickest way of achieving those two objectives without having to consider the impact of every individual case.

Sage and the diminishing product portfolio

If Marissa Mayer wants an example of a business who continually make unpopular decisions, look no further than Sage. They’re probably hardened by the continuous unpopularity of their own decisions that they don’t notice it any more. Last month, they took the strategic decision to sell off products they believed were “non-core”.

“Non-core” is a phrase they’ve used before. They’ve even used it without spinning off products, putting the fear of God into partners and customers and potentially even reducing their own customer base as a result. Not clever.

The irony is that while Sage may consider their decisions unpopular, and in many quarters they are, calling the products “non-core” in the first place makes the decision actually quite welcome. Indeed, when they announced they were selling Act CRM to Swiftpage, they may have been expecting a tidal wave of criticism. They didn’t get it. Instead, they got a sigh of relief.

Warren Butler from Act partner Preact told us that “in the last 20 years, we have supported Act throughout several changes of ownership. We’re encouraged by this… the categorisation of Act by Sage in 2012 as a ‘non-core’ product created much uncertainty in the community.”

Sage’s objective? Stop doing what you can’t do. Focus on what you can do. Yes, there will be upheaval, yes there will be worries and rumours going around. But maintain your focus on the future state of the business, and position yourself so that the eventual decision – when it comes – is less of a surprise, and more of an inevitability. Indeed, an inevitability that is almost embraced.

Managing the emotional instability of unpopular decisions

Where Sage laid the ground itself for its unpopular decision, Mayer knew the ground had already been laid. The shock should be felt by those negatively affected by the decision, not those whose position remains unchanged (and certainly not those whose position is improved).  Therefore, rather than focus on the negatives, focus on the positives – and focus on motivating those who are continuing on the journey with you.

Sage will have managed this by ensuring that not only is there “non-core”, but there is “core” – and if you’re part of that, you’re coming with us. Simply reassure the core that they’ll get the investment and the time they need.

Mayer wants a change of culture – so she’s supporting those who are already aligned to her vision. Those who aren’t simply have to adapt, or leave. The art, however, lies in managing the emotional instability that comes with such decisions.

My football team, on selling Wayne Rooney, should have expressed the financial benefits in two ways: £25m up front (which pays off some of the debts), plus extras if his new team win the league, Champions League, etcetera. One player does not a team make. This would have quelled some of the ‘fan fury’ (i.e. the customers).

Secondly – to Rooney’s colleagues – they would surely have reassured them that they’re building a team with no “superstars” – a solid unit of players who work for each other and if you don’t buy into that vision, then you’re out. It clearly worked, as Everton had one of their most successful seasons in recent memory just after selling their prize asset.

Yahoo and Sage could well experience the same benefits from their unpopular decisions. Lay the groundwork, stay resolute, manage the remaining staff and reassure customers – and an unpopular decision won’t stay unpopular for too long.

About Gareth Cartman

Gareth Cartman is a business blogger, and has spent many years working alongside HR professionals.

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One Comment to “A Guide to Making Unpopular Decisions”

  1. Heidi Thorne says:

    Good discussion on making tough decisions. Have had to make several myself. But you know what? Everyone survives the upheaval. Sometimes leaders have to make unpopular decisions for those who can’t bring themselves to make them.