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‘We Did Not Take This Decision Lightly’

Aug. 17, 2021
Effective leadership should have a distinctly human touch.

The words in the headline are those of Donnie King, CEO of Tyson Foods Inc., who announced on August 2, 2021, that his company would require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

What’s remarkable about this comment, apart from the fact that Tyson Foods was the first manufacturing company to publicly come out with a policy requiring the vaccine for the entire workforce, is the humanness of the statement.

What makes this statement so important, especially for a CEO?

“We have research showing that people have a hard time having empathy for leaders,” explains Lindred (Lindy) Greer, faculty director of the Sanger Leadership Center, and an associate professor of management and organizations at Ross Business School, University of Michigan. “As a CEO, highlighting your humanity, saying this was a tough decision, makes clear that this decision wasn’t made from a computer calculating the odds, but [from] a human being considering various groups of stakeholders and trying to figure out the best thing to do.”

Including emotion as part of a leadership message is important. “Acknowledging the emotion of the decision, a leader can allude to the fact that people will have reactions to this decision for better or worse,” says Greer, whose research focuses on how to lead effective organizational teams and also studies the communication of emotions.

While the reaction to an extremely complicated situation, such as the pandemic, is a heightened example of the varying views of the many stakeholders, the process of coming to a difficult decision is one that occurs often. Therefore, having a robust, inclusive decision-making process is imperative.

Greer sees value in the decision-making structure called RACI-VS, which stands for responsible, accountable, consulted, informed, verification and sign-off. “Working within this framework, and others like it, a leader is held accountable,” says Greer.

Among the decisions that need to be made are who is on the team and who is in the room when the decisions are being made. Companies must determine the experts in the company who need to have a say, as well as the personnel whose work will be impacted by the final decision.

“The key is to let the data, gleaned from various areas across the company, drive the decision,” says Greer.

This reliance on data as the key factor in decision-making is a move away from more traditional methods. “A good leader should not make decisions based on a gut reaction,” says Greer. “They need to have data from experts both inside and outside of the company.”

Greer says research also has shown that there is a specific number of people who should participate in the final stage of decision making. “An ideal number of people in the room should be three to five,” says Greer. “Everyone shares their opinions, which are supported by the data they gathered. Next, a robust debate should occur. It’s at that point that the leaders can balance all the information, lean heavily on data and make the final decision.” 

There is another process, embedded in decision-making, that must be adjusted when making vital decisions: organizational hierarchy. Greer says organizations should suspend hierarchy during the process of coming to a decision, and she cites as a good example the method used by the Navy SEALs when it debriefs a mission. Before entering the meeting room, personnel take off their stripes, creating a “flatness” to the process. Discussions are on equal footing as this group talks about how to improve processes moving forward.

Just as the SEAL’s method is one of continually improving processes, Tyson and other companies should use lessons learned during the pandemic in future decision-making. Perhaps one of the critical lessons learned is to present any decision or policy in a human manner that underscores the emotion of the situation.

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