Managers: How to respond when a decision divides your team

The life of a manager is far from a calm river, especially when making controversial decisions. Promotions, raises, mobility—some resolutions can create waves within your team. Between solidarity on one side and opposition on the other, when the wind of discord blows, the manager often finds themselves in a tight spot.

Too often, like a good captain, the manager retreats to their office to make a decision. In the shadows and silence, they calculate, meditate on different options, and build their strategy. Once decided on the course to take, they step onto the deck and announce their decision like a cannonball. This technique, according to management coach and work psychologist Alexis Eve, does not work. “This top-down information announcement does not allow the team to understand the decision because they do not have the same data set,” he explains. Not only does it fail to gain unanimous support, but the manager then struggles to get the team on board and often ends up rowing alone to implement it.

You have probably felt it too—some decisions do not gain unanimous support. Is this normal, or should it be a cause for concern? And how should we react when our managerial vision is challenged by our collaborators? Is it better to back down, change course, or stay the course against all odds? Our management specialists and experts from the Lab, Alexis Eve and Luc Bretones, provide guidance on what to do when the captain’s decision does not take the team along.

Headwind: Should we "stay the course"?

“In 2024, making autocratic decisions and sticking to them without explaining to the team no longer works,” says Alexis Eve. When a manager takes a direction and faces opposition, they generally adopt one of two strategies: justify themselves or stay the course. Albane, a creative director at a communication agency, recently experienced the former. “I manage a very tight-knit team of five people,” she says. “The company grew with the acquisition of major clients. To strengthen the company’s solidity and reputation, we decided to hire an externally renowned art director. It was like a business card to attract more large groups.” However, the idea of this recruitment was poorly received internally. “I think the team wanted me to promote a great graphic designer within the team,” she admits. “Our conviction was that we needed a fresh, experienced perspective that had already proven itself as an art director. This graphic designer is very talented, but I wanted to keep her in her field where she excelled.”

Albane noticed the team did not approve of her choice: “I could see there was a chill, the team was sulking and whispering. I felt compelled to justify myself, and it even made me doubt my decision.” She quickly called a meeting: “I explained the strategy and how this new talent would be a value-added for all of us. I really moved heaven and earth to show them that we would all improve and grow the business. I felt the message got through. It took some time to digest, and finally, once our art director was on board, the team understood how high the bar was for all of us.”

Quentin, founder of a startup that greenifies companies, experienced staying the course no matter what. “Our activity is intense during the holidays,” he explains. “We have many interviews to conduct during this period.” Therefore, his team of landscape gardeners could not take vacations in the middle of summer. However, the issue of rotation to allow for summer vacation coverage came up regularly. “I always opposed it because I knew how busy this period was: I needed the whole team.”

One day, however, he made an exception for an employee whose family lived abroad. “Summer was the only time he could reunite with his relatives in Mexico,” he admits. “He worked very seriously otherwise, and it seemed unthinkable to risk losing him for this reason.” When the team learned about it, they saw it as favoritism. “They cried scandal, claiming this employee received special treatment. It got heated. I called everyone to clarify that the rule was to take vacations during the off-peak period, but exceptions could be made for valid reasons, like seeing family once a year. I ended by opening the door: if any of you have an imperative to take vacation in summer, let me know.” Since then, the debate has been closed, but team morale has plummeted.

Managing between storms

Caught between two waters, the manager sometimes doesn’t know which way to row. On one hand, “justifying oneself means explaining to the team after the fact what should have been presented before,” analyzes Alexis Eve. “It gives the impression that the manager is defending themselves.” On the other hand, they struggle to make everyone swallow an unpopular decision. It’s a sure recipe for drowning. “I believe there is an alternative,” the coach suggests, “which involves looking at the situation and admitting that communication about the decision was missed. The manager can allow themselves to reconsider their choices when possible and preferable, but they can also acknowledge in front of their team that in the future, they will communicate their decision differently. They can propose a 45-minute Q&A session on the announced decision, so the team can understand and integrate it.” According to the expert, it’s time to end the ideal of the manager who acts like a “good father” and never makes mistakes. Far from the myth of the infallible leader, their role is to “guide their team with the most informed decisions possible towards the set direction.”

Understanding the opposition

If a decision is not unanimous, it’s essential to understand where the opposition comes from. According to Alexis Eve, there are two forms of opposition:

1. Communication Error: “The first is the most common and easiest to resolve,” he assures. “It’s the mistake of thinking that because the direction is clear in the manager’s mind, it is clear to everyone.” To avoid this, the psychologist advises “making decisions openly,” the exact opposite of the captain’s decision made in isolation. As much as possible, he recommends co-constructing with the team and involving them in the reflection process. “I advise managers to present a project to the team for 15 minutes and then leave 45 minutes for the team to ask questions and challenge this direction.”

2. Misalignment: Generally, this is encountered in three situations where rejecting the decision implies a misalignment on:

    • The Company’s Mission or Vision: “It’s like the captain choosing to sail to Australia while part of the team wants to go to New Zealand,” translates the coach. Part of the team is misaligned with the company’s project.
    • Company Values or Culture: “If the company promotes a culture of ‘acting quickly and doing the best, accepting a margin of error,’ anyone advocating for a ‘perfectionist’ approach will never align with what they see as a culture of sloppy work.”
    • Work Methodology: “If the company works in an agile manner and part of the team needs more structured processes, the manager will inevitably face a fundamental problem.”

Should consensus be the compass?

Co-construction avoids the rejection of many delicate decisions. However, one must not confuse “co-constructing” with “co-deciding.” While the team likes to be involved in the reflection leading to the decision, it is the captain who ultimately makes the decision. “Many topics allow for co-construction with the team, like choosing future offices, company culture, or values,” notes Alexis Eve. “For these subjects involving the collective, it’s essential to find what unites the team, but never to try to please everyone.” True consensus does not exist. The manager’s role is not to follow the wind. “Their role is similar to that of a football coach,” the psychologist illustrates. “On the sidelines, they must analyze and make decisions, including the most delicate and unpopular ones. If the team is aligned with the performance goal and the vision is clear, the decision will be accepted.”

Managers, do not navigate according to consensus. “It’s a classic way of not solving problems,” sums up Alexis Eve. Luc Bretones, a consultant and expert in managerial innovation, shares this view: “Consensus is impossible. It means aligning everyone’s preferences, and it’s unlikely the manager can achieve that. What they should seek instead is the team’s consent to the decision. Instead of aligning preferences, they should look for the intersection of everyone’s tolerance zones. These zones are much broader than preferences, as they stem from collective intelligence rather than the emotional intelligence of each collaborator.”

Making decisions without dividing: 3 tips for an assumed decision

Making a decision and getting the team to accept it is not like throwing “a bottle into the sea.” You don’t throw your project into the water and wait for the team to get excited… Here, according to Luc Bretones, is the way to navigate between opposing opinions and gain the support of most.

Tip 1: Choose the appropriate decision-making mode

The first step is to “decide how to decide,” suggests Luc Bretones. According to him, there are several decision-making modes:

  • Autocratic: “A directive and authoritative mode that has the advantage of being quick and efficient.”
  • Democratic: “Collecting everyone’s opinion is collective, but voting can frustrate those who lose.”
  • Technical: “The case is handled by one or more experts who provide recommendations.”
  • Stochastic: “This heads-or-tails decision mode allows for a quick decision.”
  • By Consent: “By far my favorite, as it allows for collective decision-making quickly and with minimal frustration.”

While the expert encourages using the consent-based decision mode, he does not exclude that all can be useful depending on the context. “It’s up to the manager to know the team’s preferred mode of operation,” he explains. “And then use this palette of modes wisely. There is no judgment on any decision mode, as long as it aligns with the team’s aspirations.”

Tip 2: Define the constraint framework

Once the decision-making mode is chosen, the manager must ask: is this within my remit? Or does this decision fall within the inherent constraints of the organization? “Not everything is debatable in a company,” asserts the specialist. “There are prerequisites that should not be confused with what may be perceived as a ‘bad managerial decision.'” For example, issues related to revenue, profit margins, and budget constitute the constraint framework. “It’s pointless to discuss and dwell on the environment,” he insists. “The manager must explain the constraint framework to the team and focus on what the team has leverage and decision-making power over.”

Tip 3: Co-construct with consent-based decision making

When the decision is indeed the manager’s responsibility, and the team has real leeway, Luc Bretones recommends using consent-based decision-making. A rudder that directs the ship towards a course the whole crew immediately adheres to.

The manager first presents a proposal: this proposal will inevitably highlight tensions distinguishing the “non-ideal situation” from the “resolved situation.” The proposal will receive objections: this is known as the “amendment phase.” Like in Parliament, the initial proposal is marked by suggestions. “There are two types of objections,” details the expert. “Those that improve the initial proposal—the amendment—and lethal objections that disqualify the initial proposal.” The final decision is adopted: if the objections enrich the initial proposal, they are incorporated into the decision. “We enter here into each one’s tolerance zones,” he explains. “The final decision is the one that meets no objections. It’s ‘good enough for now’ or ‘safe enough to try.’ It’s an integrative decision-making process.” Co-constructed, the final decision is better accepted and implemented. “Oh Captain, My Captain,” remember that it’s unlikely to take the team on a course that suits everyone. Seeking harmony onboard risks floating aimlessly or facing a mutiny. Step out of your cabin, get on deck, and mobilize your crew. As Philippe Pollet-Villard wrote: “In a journey, it’s not the destination that matters but the path traveled, and especially the detours.”

By Gabrielle de Loynes, Alexis Eve and Luc Bretones, via Welcome To The Jungle