Management experts have long touted employee buy-in as the key to organizational change. But new research suggests that if you want employees to support your decisions, you should take a hard line.

The Findings

In the study, researchers found that when new rules seem bendable or changeable, people are more likely to revolt. But when rules are definitive and absolute, people are more likely to support them.

This response may be a coping mechanism, explains Gavan J. Fitzsimons, the study's co-author and a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. "If there's no chance you can change the rule, it's not really functional to have those feelings of resentment, because you're going to be miserable," he says. "But when there's a small chance it can be reversed, a backlash could lead to the outcome you want."

The Methodology

The study was based on two online surveys. In the first, researchers told participants that elected officials were planning to reduce local speed limits for safety reasons. Some participants were told the legislation would definitely pass, and others were told that it might pass. The participants then rated their feelings about the new law. Those who thought the new law was a done deal were more supportive of the new speed limits.

In the second survey, participants were told about a new law banning the use of cell phones while driving. This time, researchers told half the participants that the new law would affect drivers in India and told the other half that the law was for U.S. drivers. Participants were told that passage of the new law was either very likely, somewhat likely, or definite. Then they were asked to rate their feelings about the legislation. Those who thought the law would definitely pass and directly affect Americans were most supportive of it. When there was uncertainty about whether the law would pass, participants had a more negative reaction to it, especially when it affected Americans.

The researchers say they based the surveys on driving laws instead of business scenarios because they wanted a restriction that would apply to virtually all Americans. "We were interested in the basic psychology of how people react," says Fitzsimons.

The Takeaway

Business owners should make decisions authoritatively and broadly. For instance, if you want to change the sales team's pay structure from commission to salary based, don't make exceptions, says Aaron C. Kay, an associate professor of management and psychology at Fuqua and a co-author of the study. To avoid resistance, one might be tempted to make gradual changes, first making it an option for those employees who would like to switch. But that's a mistake, says Kay. "Once you finally make the new pay structure mandatory," he says, "you will be up against a work force full of employees who are adamantly against the idea."

But that doesn't mean you have to leave employees out of the decision-making process, says Fitzsimons. You can gather input from workers before an important change is made. Just make it clear that your decision is final. "Many leaders have misinterpreted the common wisdom that you should solicit the input of the people, but that should only be done up until the point the decision gets made," he says. "If you suggest it's open for discussion, it's going to undermine your decision."

Accepting Change

Participants rated their feelings about a new law limiting cell-phone use while driving. (A lower number indicates support for the law.) The most positive reaction to the law came from participants who were told that the law would definitely pass and would directly affect them.

  Affects people here Affects people in India
Somewhat likely to pass 2.34 1.53
Very likely to pass 2.13 1.33
Will definitely pass 1.07 2.07