It's a mistake as old as time -- or at least as old as the pandemic: A leader makes a decision unilaterally, without taking the temperature of the room. Whether they demand that everyone is working side-by-side at the office by Monday or that health coverage is about to change -- and not for the better -- it's no wonder their decision flops. It never had a chance.

Decisions lose power when they lose stakeholder engagement, according to Eric Pliner, CEO of YSC Consulting and author of the new book Difficult Decisions. Leaders want, and crucially need, buy-in. Otherwise, their decision may never be fully implemented or respected. 

Pliner recently shared his end-to-end process for making difficult decisions while building consensus. Time invested upfront, he says, is more efficient than having to repair relationships and hurt feelings down the road.  

Getting it right comes down to clarity and asking the right questions, as Pliner demonstrates in six steps below.

1. Ask "What am I deciding?" and "Should I be deciding?"

To think any scenario through, first ask yourself, what is the actual question? Does your framing capture the crux of the issue, or are you considering a superficial question and need to go deeper?

Then ask, is this question within your responsibilities? Even if it is, maybe there is someone closer to the dilemma who should make the decision instead.

If someone more junior could make the call, delegate to them.

2. How urgent is it?

If the decision is important but not urgent, put more time in. Issues with a larger scope and impact will benefit from greater emotional buy-in through driving consensus. Urgent questions that are less consequential may need more authoritative leadership.

3. Who are your stakeholders? How will you engage them?

If you're going to make a tough choice that has wide effects, you need people on your side. Start preparing them well before you get to the heart of the matter.

Ask, who wants to be involved in the decision? Who might be interested but doesn't actually need to be involved? Who needs to be aware of the decision?

Pliner shares, "If you ask someone for their opinion without intending to follow their advice, you risk disengaging or insulting them. Think through your stakeholders' individual styles and needs and consider what approach will secure their investment on clear and transparent terms."

4. Explain how the decision is going to be made. Then, ask stakeholders for their input

Should the decision be decided democratically with a vote, or by consensus, giving each individual a veto? Or are you simply hoping to hear a few different views that may inform your own thinking?

"Avoid ambiguity or soft-balling the message because you're afraid that stakeholders won't like how you want the decision to be made," says Pliner. "They will be less happy if they think they're getting a vote and they aren't."

Pliner suggests that you say something like, "I'm asking you about [the decision] because I want to hear your view/get your vote/or give you veto power."

5. Thank stakeholders for their input

Say, "I really appreciate your view," or "Thanks for letting me hear your voice." Remind them how the decision will be made and whether they have a vote, veto, or voice. This will help them live with the decision even if it's not the outcome they hoped for.

6. Standardize meetings to focus on decision making

When Pliner introduced his approach to the executive team of a Fortune 500 company, they began creating meeting agendas organized around making decisions.

Next to each item, the CEO identified who held decision-making authority and how the decision was going to be made.

Putting it on paper forced the CEO to consider his expectations beforehand, and ensured that everyone in attendance could either challenge the agenda or align with it.

Tough decisions are never easy, but having a process for creating buy-in ensures a level of consistency and transparency, Pliner says. The true test is if a decision is made on time and with support, even if -- or especially if -- stakeholders disagree.