Are you Selling or Telling?

Over the past few recent years we have been supporting the growth and development of many clients. During countless engagements and discussions about the reasons why strategic initiatives falter, I began to notice a very frequent disconnect around the association and connection between decision making and the related communication.

The disconnect centers on two things:

  1. How leaders gather data and MAKE decisions
  2. What process they use in COMMUNICATING and getting buy in to those decisions.


In response to this disconnect I have worked iteratively over the past 5 years or so, on the above model. It has proven to be a very useful tool in my work. Many leaders find it helpful, simply in understanding and becoming more aware that there are 5 phases. With the information on what takes place in each phase leaders learn how to better manage both the decision and subsequent communications process. The result is often significant improvement in alignment and adoption of organizational changes.

How to use the model:

The X axis represents a type of management style continuum. It begins characterizing a very participative or open management style and progresses all the way to a mode characterized by a very closed or autocratic way of managing.

The Y axis represents the level of participation and involvement of people in the decision and subsequent communications process.

5 Stages:

Each stage or phase has its own distinct descriptors to help people understand what occurs there. Stage 1 begins with brainstorming or open discovery, where leaders are authentically looking for creative ideas. There is significantly high levels of participation and involvement by all. Stage 2 is where focused discussion occurs and where leaders are genuinely looking for inputs as they explore options before a decision is made. Stage 3 and Stage 4 is where it gets tricky. Stage 3 is mostly about the beginning of a sell process. There is usually significant open interaction and is mostly about educating and convincing people about a general direction or decision that is being considered. This may be the trickiest stage as it is prudent for the leader to be open for some tweaks to pending decisions. I often say that the leader can be (or maybe needs to be) 80% firm on the most critical aspects any strategic decision. However it is always helpful in convincing people or getting their buy in, if they are allowed or enabled to shape things a little. Stage 4 occurs when decisions have been made and this is about announcing or explaining it to people. It must be done in such a way that people buy into and support whatever direction is chosen. Hence it is VITAL to be prepared to explain what it means to them while paying keen attention to people’s reactions. Stage 5 is quite simply DIRECT instruction or communication. It is colloquially known as TELLING which at its extreme, is essentially dictating to people using an autocratic/closed style.

Participation and Motivational Decline:

People’s participation and motivation can have quite a dramatic decline if the process is not managed well, as is represented by the dotted line in the model.

Highest risk areas as noted above are at stage 3 and 4 where the motivational decline and level of commitment of people, can easily suffer a precipitous drop. A big contributor to this possibility, is linked to people’s expectations about THEIR level of involvement or participation in decisions. As long as a leaders actions are consistent with their commitments about their management style, and peoples level of involvement, then less problems arise.

I could write a lot more about our experiences with this model, but hope that the above is sufficient for it to be of value to you.

I will leave you with three big cautions:

  1. Be clear about whether you are SELLING or TELLING and whether you actually WANT input or not.
  2. Do not go to an offsite as a management team, get excited/aligned and then think you are at stage 4 with the rest of the organization, when you are really at the early part of stage 3. Misreading the stage and the audience, can cost a lot of time and money.
  3. Words and slides do not fool people. They ALWAYS draw their judgments and conclusions on the behaviors and body language of leaders more than the words uttered.

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