You’ll Have to Sell It

Most of the time, the best decisions respect or reinforce the norms and values of your organization. That gets you buy-in and commitment. But how do you raise the odds of doing this? One approach is to run through a simple mental exercise – before you actually make a decision that will affect many parts of your organization. It’s basically testing your options for resonance.

Imagine you are making a presentation. Your audience consists of people who will be affected by your decision. Go through each of your options and imagine how you would justify choosing that option – in terms of the values and norms they really care about.

What specifically would you say about each option? What could you say with genuine conviction, which is often critical to persuasion? What might ring hollow, raise eyebrows, or elicit resistance? Which options seem likely to get your audience smiling or nodding yes? In short, which option seems to be the right next paragraph in the ongoing story of your organization and what it stands for?

What does this mean in practice? Here is an example you may recall, if you read some of the many negative headlines it generated about Yahoo. The problem originated in the early 2000s. Like many other Western companies, Yahoo began building major operations in China. As a condition of doing business there, these companies agreed to follow China’s laws and regulations restricting freedom of speech. Then, in 2005, a dissident journalist named Shi Tao used his Yahoo email account to send a document to Western reporters that described Chinese government restrictions on media coverage of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. This document had been widely circulated among Chinese media organizations and was hardly a high-level state secret.

Yahoo faced a very difficult issue in China, once the state security officers appeared at the Yahoo offices, but the company might have handled it better, if its executives had followed some version of this exercise in the months or years before Shi Tao’ arrest and imprisonment. They could have asked themselves how they would handle a situation like the one that actually occurred. After all, a request from Chinese state security authorities for personal information about a political dissident was hardly an unlikely scenario. And, if they decided to handle it in the way they actually did, Yahoo’s executives might have understood how difficult it would be to explain this decision – in terms of basic values and commitments – to everyone it would affect.

Would this exercise have a difference? There is no way to know. But it might have become clear that doing what the company actually did was an untenable response to the situation, and the company might have taken some useful precautions. For example, the office manager who identified the journalist had no guidelines or training for handling situations with state officials. There was no senior Yahoo official available for him to consult. And the information the police wanted was readily available, not stored a remote server or protected by passwords or approvals. In contrast, Google kept its personal identification data on servers in Hong Kong.

None of these steps would have solved the problem, but some combination of them might have given the company time to work on tactics and perhaps negotiate with the Chinese officials. Steps like these would have enabled Yang and Yahoo to explain, to critics and to Shi Tao’s parents, that they had done all they could – aside from leaving China altogether – to protect the privacy of Yahoo customers and stand up for Western values of free speech. Yahoo and its employees would also have known that the company had done all it could do to adhere to the values that defined Yahoo.

Testing for resonance can help you make a good decision and also raise the chances it will be implemented effectively. If your plan for resolving a gray area problem clashes with the defining commitments of your organization, it may work no better than a badly matched organ transplant. Some people will follow your decision because you’re the boss, others because they want to keep their jobs or get their bonus, and others because they have no choice other than to live with the decision. But none of these tepid motives can substitute for the deep commitment that creates great organizations and thriving communities. That level of commitment requires a strong sense of common identity and shared purpose.