How to Reverse a BIG Decision Without Company Revolt
As CEO, you make BIG decisions every day. You spend weeks deliberating with experts, thinking through your values and strategy, and weighing the pros and cons. Change management is critical when it comes to implementing BIG decisions—or reversing them.
Insurance company Farmers Group, for example, told employees in 2022 that they would continue with remote and hybrid work options for their employees. That is, until a new CEO reversed that policy, sparking outrage, protests, and viral social media coverage. They’re not the only ones coming under fire from employees about return-to-work policies, with rumors of corporate-level unionization at Starbucks, petition and protest at Walt Disney Company, and walkouts at Google.
Today’s CEOs have to thread the needle on hot-button issues that threaten corporate stability and shareholder confidence. But reversing BIG decisions doesn’t have to end in fraught negotiations or picket lines. Here’s how to better handle the situation without a company revolt:
1. Clearly articulate your why
As CEO, you’re juggling a lot of different inputs. When it comes to a BIG decision like layoffs, remote work policy, or fraught issues like sexual harassment or racism, there’s a lot at stake. When it comes to making a change, ask yourself why.
If you’re going to walk back a BIG idea or policy, you need to clearly articulate why you’re doing it—for yourself, but also for your team (and in some cases, the media.) Do an alignment check:
- What are my company’s core values? Does this decision fit those?
- What kind of a culture do I want? How does this decision create or dismantle that culture?
- What are we giving back to our community, our customers, and our employees? How will they react to this?
“We implemented a consensus meeting that had the purpose of align[ment],” says Mateo Romano, coach and former Mattel executive. “So everybody had to say, If we are going to achieve this, how are we going to be able to get it? And that forced the conversation between sales, marketing, supply chain, and finance to be on the same table and align on what we can really achieve.”
There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind—depending on the situation, it can lead to better outcomes in the long run—but you need to make sure you’re not creating chaos for the sake of your anxiety. Check in with yourself and your team to make sure you’re holding firm with your core values and business needs before making the reversal.
2. Listen to your entire team
When you dig into why employees walk out or protest decisions, it comes down to feeling unheard. In the Farmers Group case, employees had made huge financial decisions after learning they would be remote, like moving to a new state or home-schooling their children. Changing this policy so quickly and decisively without input from the team felt like a slap in the face.
“Leadership is not entirely about inspiration. You have to run a business. And that means watching costs, watching revenues. But you don’t have to be brutal about it,” says Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. “There are better ways to treat people. My leadership lessons through all the years I’ve been active have to do with empowering people, treating them with dignity and respect, listening to their ideas.”
What’s important with this is if you open up channels to listen to your team, then you have to actually listen to them. If you pull in feedback, offer up office hours, or otherwise engage your team to make a decision collaboratively, only to flip a switch, that won’t work.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Farmers Group CEO sent out a companywide email after the backlash, saying, “We read all your comments. We understand and we appreciate them. But we’re still moving forward.” That’s not listening.
3. Give your team time to process their emotions
Sometimes, even if it will be an unpopular decision, you still have to go through with it—if you can, take it slow. While there are situations where you’ll need to rip the band-aid off (like layoffs, for example), if you can give your team a runway, do it.
That’s because change management isn’t necessarily about the specific change, but about helping people work through their feelings about the change. It’s human nature to resist something new, even in an innovative work environment.
That’s exactly the issue coach Mateo Romano faced while CEO at Mattel. “We had to implement a program to convince people why change was good,” Mateo remembers. “So we used a book called Our Iceberg Is Melting. We shared the book with the whole company and took them through the story. And then we told them, ‘Guys, we are in a situation that our iceberg is melting.’ So it was trying to connect everyone to our reality, because sometimes everybody’s very comfortable just doing the same thing that they have done for many years. And they don’t see that it’s time to evolve.”
The more time you can give your team to adjust to a new policy—or even phasing it out slowly, in the case of remote or hybrid work policies—the easier it will be on everyone.
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Communication is the name of the game when it comes to any BIG decision, but especially one where you’re making an important change. You need to think about communications as both top-down and bottom-up, answering questions and addressing concerns in multiple venues.
A few ways to proactively communicate with your team once you’ve made your decision:
- A town hall meeting, with time for questions
- Training middle management on how to speak 1:1 with their direct reports or teams
- Open office hours where employees can speak with leadership
- Slack messages, internal social media posts, and emails
The bigger the decision, the more proactively you need to communicate with everyone on your team. Remember the why from #1? That’s critical as you roll out something new.
5. Ask an expert for help
If you’re wary of employee backlash or a full-blown corporate revolt, it’s okay to ask for outside help. “You can always take time to decide, admitting not knowing the answer is not a sign of weakness,” says Mateo. “Take time to listen—and get a coach.”
Working with a CEO coach can provide new insights and perspectives to help you think outside of the box and make a holistic change management plan. CEO coaches have been in your position before—and they’ve handled their fair share of challenging decisions to make and implement with their teams. Working together can help you better navigate the push-and-pull of reversing a BIG decision.
“I used to joke that at many big companies, when you rise to the top, you never have to learn anything ever again. You’re expected to have all the answers,” says Professor Kanter. “Learning means being able to challenge your own assumptions and think new thoughts.”
At CEO Coaching International, we provide executive coaching to help CEOs make tough decisions like these. Our highly trained and battle-tested executive coaches have years of experience navigating tough situations with success. If you have questions or just want to connect with someone who knows what you’re going through, schedule a complimentary, no-obligation coaching session today: https://ceocoachinginternational.com/contact/
About CEO Coaching International
CEO Coaching International works with CEOs and their leadership teams to achieve extraordinary results quarter after quarter, year after year. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 1,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries and 45 industries. The coaches at CEO Coaching International are former CEOs, presidents, or executives who have made BIG happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $10 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight, nine, and ten-figure exits. Companies working with CEO Coaching International for two years or more have experienced an average EBITDA CAGR of 53.5% during their time as a client, more than three times the U.S. average, and a revenue CAGR of 26.2%, nearly twice the U.S. average.