The deciding factor

How can you successfully sway a decision after it has been made?  Clifford J Ehrlich advises on this, and how
to assess a potential boss

Q: "I know the best way to influence a decision is to be there when
it is being made, but sometimes conflicts and deadlines don’t allow it. It
seems that once people have made a decision, or are well advanced in the
decision-making process, they are reluctant to consider another perspective.
How can I influence the outcome at that point?"

A: Everyone in a job with a significant advice-giving component, such
as HR, understands the value of entering a discussion when the participants are
open-minded and the flow of ideas is strongest. Unfortunately, business
executives usually have more things to do than time allows. Their need to move
ahead quickly causes them to resist backtracking or rethinking a decision.

However, we have found that our lack of success in persuading people to
reconsider a decision often results from the approach we use. We introduce
information we believe may have been overlooked or given too little weight, and
explain its merits. The decision-maker defends the decision and we quickly find
ourselves in a debate. Since the decision-maker holds a different position, guess
who wins?

An effective alternative is to shift the discussion from debate to inquiry.
Inquiry prevents participants from being stranded at separate ends of a
discussion and creates alignment. Rather than telling your colleague what is
wrong with their decision, ask: "How does this bring you closer to your
business objectives? What opportunities does it make possible that would not
have been under the alternatives that were considered? What tipped the scale in
your thinking? What was it about the other options you didn’t like?"

Ask the questions in a tone that says, "I want to understand",
rather than, "You’ve made a mistake and I want to change your mind".

This approach worked for me when one of our divisions was planning an
acquisition. I knew, as did the head of that division, that we didn’t have much
in the way of executive talent capable of running that new business. But he had
made considerable progress in the acquisition process when I learned about it.
I went to see him and told him I wanted to get his thinking on the move. He
walked me through the numbers – market share, return on investment and so on –
making a compelling case for the acquisition.

And then I asked: "Who is going to run it?" It stopped him dead in
his tracks. We really didn’t have anyone suitable and neither did the company
we were about to acquire. The wonderful numbers I had seen wouldn’t materialise
without the right team. He didn’t have that team, and so didn’t proceed with
the acquisition.

Inquiry is also useful in a situation where a manager is about to make a
promotion or hire from outside the company, and your assessment is that it
won’t be a suitable appointment. Questions directed at the candidate’s
experience or ability to handle the crucial aspects of the job give the manager
the opportunity to rethink the decision before it is final.

Whether or not your approach changes the outcome, you will have raised
issues that shouldn’t be overlooked and have helped sharpen the manager’s

Remember in all of these situations that the people you are counselling want
to make the right decision. Your job is to approach them in a way that
facilitates that result.

Q: "My last two bosses were micro-managers who made me miserable. I
am moving to a new job as a benefits manager and want to make sure my next boss
will help me grow and develop in my role. What traits should I look for?"

A: I, too, have been through the agony of accepting a job that was
terrific, only to discover the person I worked for drained me of enthusiasm and
self-confidence. After that experience, I determined it is best to work for
people who:

– Are accessible. They are there when you need them

– Are willing to teach you and help you think, and are committed to your
professional growth. They can challenge and guide you

– Are willing to share information, insights and perspectives

– Give credit to others. They share praise; they don’t hog it

– Know that work is only part of living a full life

To assess a potential boss, utilise the interview process. Ask, what was the
last big decision made in benefits? What role did you play? What role did the
person in the job I’m going into play? Listen carefully to discern how the boss
sees himself or herself and subordinates as players in implementing decisions.

By all means, if it is possible, contact the boss’s former employees and ask
for their appraisals. It is the best way to gauge if you and the boss will be
compatible. And it is an excellent way for you to learn what traits to exhibit
when you are the boss.

Clifford J Ehrlich is a principal of the Cabot Advisory
Group (, a US-based company of veteran senior HR executives
from global organisations. Cabot principals have direct experience designing
and implementing creative, practical solutions to today’s leading HR
challenges. Ehrlich is the former senior vice-president of HR at Marriott
International where he was responsible for 195,000 employees.

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