How to Avoid Screwing Up a Perfectly Good Decision

“I can’t believe they think that’s a good decision.”

Have you been in that situation—when your senior management makes a decision that, from your perspective, makes no sense? Most people have countless examples come to mind.

One situation, in particular, turned out to be a significant teachable moment for me.

I was leading a team of truly talented software developers. We were good and we knew it. There were some organizational changes decreed from on high that didn’t make sense to us. In my youthful ignorance, I set up a meeting with a leader about three levels above me. He accepted the invitation.

In the discussion, I boldly explained how his recent announcements were upsetting people in the department. I went so far as to say, “Bob, you’re not making the ‘What’s in it for me’” clear.

Bob was quiet at first. Then he responded with a statement I’ll never forget. “Andy, sometimes it’s not about you. It’s about ‘what’s in it for us.’”

Check. Mate.

Explaining the Why

I walked out of his office—humbled—learning a critical lesson.

Yes, explaining the “WIIFM: The What’s In It for Me” is important when we communicate our plans. When we make project decisions or deliver announcements to the troops, they are likely filtering our messages through self-interested lenses. They want to know what this means to them. To their promotional opportunities. To their mortgage payment.

In Robert Cialdini’s classic Influence: The Power of Persuasion, he explains how the word ‘because’ is critical when trying to influence someone. Too often, we as leaders wrestle with options for an issue and then render a decision. But when we communicate it to our teams, we fail to get their buy-in because we neglect to explain the reason behind the decision.

Cialdini asserts “because” is the most influential word in the English language. Further, the “because” doesn’t even have to be that persuasive!

But the magic isn’t in the word. It’s in the explaining. He states, “A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.”

Make the WIIFM clear when you can.

When The WIIFM Is Not as Clear

But sometimes it’s not about what’s in it for one particular person or team.

The announcement about layoffs? The outsourcing of work to service providers? The reorganization that leaves me with yet another new boss?

There are situations where it’s more difficult to pull out a WIIFM. Some decisions are more about the What’s In It for Us.  Maybe it’s the value to our organization as a whole. Or our customers. Or another part of our company.

One executive told me “this is the first company I’ve worked at where one department would be willing to give up a dollar of budget if another would benefit by more than that.” You may not work at such a company, but if that’s the reason behind a decision, explain it.

Asking About the Why

Perhaps you’re not the person communicating the Why. Rather, you’re on the receiving end, as I was. You’re scratching your head in disbelief, like me. What’s the lesson for us?

You could schedule a meeting with the leader three levels up. A large helping of humility might be a good breakfast choice, if you do. Even if you just ask your boss or project sponsor, it’s worth seeking out the Why behind their decision.

Later in my career, I had a boss who previewed an upcoming reorganization with his direct reports. I asked him, “What would you say are the primary benefits of this reorg?”

Interestingly, he couldn’t answer the question. It illuminated the fact that before announcing the reorg, we had better sharpened up the message or reconsider the wisdom of the change.

It started with a Why question.

If the Why isn’t clear, seek it out. My last example notwithstanding, there’s probably a reason. Remember that it may not satisfy your need to know What’s In It for You, so be prepared to accept What’s In It for Us.

One Last Lesson

As I look back on the humbling discussion with the executive years ago, there’s one last lesson I’d like to share. I left his office that day benefiting from a teachable moment. But I wonder if he did.

What I mean is, he didn’t follow his own wisdom. The plans they were rolling out had a reasonably compelling What’s In It for Us. But for all my complaining about the lack of WIIFM and his wisdom about WIIFU, his earlier announcements didn’t deliver. They did not even come close to communicating the Why behind the decisions.

When we find ourselves thinking we’ve dispersed highly valuable wisdom to someone on our team, let’s make sure we don’t miss any leftover lessons for ourselves.

Don’t screw up a perfectly good decision. Learn from my teachable moment—and his.

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