In theory: Selling unpopular plans

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak.

It's never an easy ride being a manager. One of the toughest parts of the job is introducing unpopular measures, such as redundancies, restructurings or big changes of strategy. How to survive this and keep things amiable in the office is the holy grail of management - the challenge of appeasing the office big mouths should never be underestimated.

It's a phenomenon that has preoccupied business thinkers throughout the ages, but a breakthrough came in 2001 when The Tipping Point, a book by US journalist Malcolm Gladwell, was published. Gladwell's theory compared the sudden popularity and eventual unpopularity of phenomena - be they pairs of trainers or management edicts - with infectious diseases. As soon as enough people are infected, critical mass or a tipping point occurs and the infection is passed on.

So how can you make a potentially unpopular management decision popular? Gladwell suggests three things. The first is to follow the law of the few. This refers to getting the most influential handful of people in your organisation or team on board. If you can get them to spread the word about how great your idea is, its acceptance by everyone else will be less painful.

But their endorsement won't be enough. You will also need to give your management idea a 'stickiness' that makes it appealing in the rest of the office. Is there anything positive you can say about it? Any sugar coating with which to sweeten the bitter pill? Yes, 10 people will get the sack, but the 10 remaining people will get a nice pay rise.

The last point Gladwell makes is about exploiting the general environment you find yourself in. Can your announcement chime with good news of a broader sort? The refurbishment of the office toilets, perhaps? A new vending machine? If you're really struggling, a nice weather forecast for the week?

If you follow these three routes, then Mr or Ms Popular you will certainly be.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.


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