Feeling Trapped by Forced-Option Questions From Leadership?

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Sep 10, 2020
This article is part of a series called HR Communication Corner.

The old “Have you stopped beating your spouse?” dilemma captures this problem well: “Yes or no?” Either way you answer, you’re in trouble. 

During a meeting with your executive team, the question may sound like this one of these:

  • “Can you or can you not get this new facility staffed by November 1?”
  • “Are you confident we can get this enterprise system installed for less than $100K?”
  • “Bottom line: Is Gary going to make it in this job, or should we be looking for his replacement?”
  • “Which is the best approach — delay until the bugs are worked out or take advantage of the discount that runs out in two days?”

Of course, if you can give a clear-cut, confident response in such situations, fine. Do it. The problem that surfaces with such pointed options clearly stated is that you frequently don’t feel comfortable or confident choosing either Option A or Option B. Caveats come to mind. In your way of thinking, the “right” answer is neither choice.

But executives seldom want equivocations. Like news reporters, they’ll continue to push for you to choose Option A or Option B just the way they stated it. That makes life and decisions easier for them. 

But not for you! If you answer just as the question was phrased, you’ll often back yourself into a corner when things don’t work out as you intend.

4 Options to Be Clear and Correct When Responding to Forced-Choice Questions

  1. Take your choice…uh, their choice. When you come to the forced fork in the road, take a stand if you feel confident in your opinion. State whichever choice you believe to be right — the right date, the right amount, the right employee, the best approach. The executive will be pleased that you’re playing along. That is, as long as your response and/or opinion turns out to be correct. But if things turn out badly, you’ve lost credibility. 
  2. Reframe the question. That is, reframe the stated forced-choice question to one you think is the “right” question for the situation, the “most critical” question, the “most important” question, or the “most immediate” question. An example: “In my opinion, what’s more important than full staffing by November 1 is finding the ideal engineering team. That search for engineers with X experience may take a while longer.”
  3. Expand the multiple-choice question to offer new ideas. The expanded opinion to the question “Can you or can you not get this new facility staffed by November 1?” might be this response: “I’m sure we could fill all the positions by November 1. But getting the right people in the best spots may take longer, up to six months. The job market now for…”
  4. Ask for time to develop new options. Executives enjoy delays like they enjoy a root canal. So sell it: “Neither of the options you mentioned sounds ideal. But if I could take a few days for research, I think I can bring you better options to achieve our goal of X. Can you give me a week to find that best option?”

It takes confidence to spring yourself free from a forced-choice trap from a misguided executive. Develop and display it.

This article is part of a series called HR Communication Corner.
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