How to Make Controversial Decisions According to Research
Surpisingly, how you decide, can be just as important as what you decide.
Posted Dec 20, 2017
Cape Cod Regional Tech began its 2015 school year with a bit more drama than administrators preferred, no doubt, as hundreds of female students defiantly marched into school wearing tight, stretchy athletic pants.
The mass protest was a response to the school’s decision to ban uncovered yoga pants and leggings from the school dress code. Students, along with some sympathetic parents and teachers, argued the decision violated freedom of expression. Some went so far as to label the policy sexist, pointing to its disproportionate impact on female students.
School administrators, and leaders more generally, surely do not relish making these kinds of decisions. But this is the business they’ve chosen. Leaders, by nature of their position, are expected to make controversial decisions, decisions bound to, on occasion, ruffle a few feathers.
Leaders, however, also bear the responsibility of mitigating the outrage. Because when left unchecked, outrage evolves into resentment, ultimately damaging relationships with the aggrieved. What’s more, this outrage can prevent leaders from successfully implementing their decision, which often relies on the commitment of the disaffected parties.
What, then, is a leader to do? Some leaders, anxious about the potential fallout, attempt to stem the outrage by caving in to the aggrieved, watering down their decision. Sure, this may shrink the upset in the short-run, but often leads to ill-advised decisions that, in the long-run, harm the organization as a whole. Is there a better way to minimize upset without sacrificing the quality of the decision?
There is – if we’re willing to check our assumptions. We assume that when people are angered by a decision we’ve made, it’s because they didn’t get the outcome they wanted – the promotion, the budget resources, the yoga pants. In the literature, this is what’s known as distributive justice.
But this might not be the whole story. What if, more than the outcome, the anger is a result of the process that led to the decision? In other words, what if people don’t just get upset with what we’ve decided, but how?
The Surprising Importance of Process
According to the field of study known as procedural justice, people don't just judge how fair a decision is based on the final decision. They base it on how transparent, equitable, and humane the process. Indeed, in some circumstances, the process can be just as influential in people’s fairness perception as the outcome. Sometimes more.
I was reminded of the importance of procedure, recently, after I asked a friend for help with a mundane decision, namely, buying a new computer. I was choosing between the Mac and Surface Pro. He passionately advocated for the Surface arguing that Microsoft has come a long way in recent years. But while I appreciated the counsel, for one reason or another, I ended up going with the Mac. When, a couple of days later I told my friend about the purchase, I could tell he was a bit miffed.
Why in the world, I thought to myself, should he care about the brand of my computer, one that he will never use, or even see for that matter? He wasn’t. It was my process that rubbed him the wrong way.
When someone’s level of contribution to a decision doesn’t match their expectations, they perceive the process to be unfair. When I asked my friend for advice he likely assumed, because I hadn’t specified otherwise, that I was inviting him to make the decision with me. Really, though, I intended to make the decision solo. I just wanted his opinion. In other words, he thought he had a vote, even though I only meant to grant him a voice.
Take a more consequential example of how procedure influences reactions to decisions: the US presidential elections. In the last two decades, on two occasions, yes two(!), the candidate who garnered the most overall votes went on to lose the election. That’s because in the US system, of course, it’s electoral, not popular, votes that determine the presidency.
If people based their feelings on just the decision outcome, then the level outrage over this curious state of affairs would have been unimaginable. But it wasn’t. To be sure, some were upset. But, the fact that we had a peaceful transition of power without nationwide riots, attempted coups, or serious moves towards secession, given the extraordinary weight of the decision, is a sign that it could’ve been far worse. Why wasn’t it worse?
Because documented in the twelfth amendment of the US constitution, is a clear and transparent decision-making process. Consequently, everyone knew the rules of the game. Moreover and crucially, they knew them in advance of the election. And so no matter how devastated half the electorate was with the outcome, they didn't generally see the process as illegitimate (although some, especially in the case of Bush v. Gore, to this day, call shenanigans, while others see the system as a whole as corrupted by campaign finance, but these are conversations for another day).
So if procedure can influence people’s perception of fairness as much, if not more than outcome, leaders should sweat a little less about what decision they’re going to make, and a lot more about how they plan to make it.
How to Design a Fair Decision-Making Process
First, communicate a clear, transparent process in advance of the decision. For example, the next time you’re thinking about changing the school dress code, send a memo first outlining the three-week process: week one – online survey to get feedback from parents, week two – town hall to get input from students and faculty, week three – executive meeting where the decision will ultimately be made. Furthermore, you’ll earn extra points if you indicate the criteria by which leadership will make their decision.
Second, leaders should be clear about how each individual or group gets to contribute to the decision, particularly: who gets a voice and who gets a vote? Leaders, however, not wanting to offend, frequently hesitate to make the distinction. Ironically, this ends up creating more offense in the long-run as people inevitably find out. Better to let them know up front.
Third, once a decision is made, leaders should explain not just what decision they’ve reached, but why. Communicating a clear rationale helps people understand that the decision was made based on the pre-determined criteria, not, as some are inclined to believe, the capricious whims of the leader.
Finally, and most importantly, leaders should be persuadable. If your heart is already set on a particular course of action and you have no good faith willingness to change your mind, then better to jettison the idea of a process altogether. Make your decision, communicate it to others, and move on. But if you do choose to go through the effortful and time-consuming exercise of inviting others to the table before making your decision, make sure you come to that table with an open mind. Because people are generally good at sniffing out when the decision was a fait accompli.
Of course, a good process (and mindset) won’t guarantee people will like your decision. In fact, no matter what you decide, someone, somewhere undoubtedly won’t. That’s okay. Your job isn’t to convince them that the outcome is good, it’s to maximize the chance they see the process as fair.
This article originally appeared at alpitt.com.