Developing an Effective Decision-Making Style is One of the Many Challenges of New Leaders

Many managers and most early-career leaders struggle with their responsibility for decision-making
.  Some leaders are fearful of exposing themselves by making a bad decision and therefore, avoid this responsibility.  Others feel empowered by their station and make frequent, unfounded and ill-advised decisions, mostly driven by ego.  And perhaps the majority of early-career leaders that I train and coach, place a lot of stock in the consensus opinion of their employees.  This latter technique, management by consensus, is a dangerous style to employ as a leader

Consensus Clouds Clarity

A leader that attempts to reduce decision-making to the average of the individual opinions of his associates is a leader that has delegated one of his core responsibilities.  Usually, the inexperienced manager will seek the consensus of his team in the hope that this compromise to alternative opinions will provide common ground for those with conflicting opinions.  Almost everyone leaves the process feeling cheated.  Here’s what happens when consensus rules the day:

  • Potentially creative solutions to problems are diluted and blended to the point where the probability that they will be ineffective in solving the problem in question is high. 
  • Instead of feeling good about the compromise, individuals leave the discussion frustrated, upset or even angry about what just happened.  Consensus management does not create motivated employees.
  • The leader’s credibility is weakened or destroyed. The leader’s role is reduced to one of arbitrator.  Everyone has viewed the  leader’s unwillingness to sort through the issues, listen to ideas and choose a course.  People want and expect their leaders to be appropriately decisive. 
  • The more politically astute employees quickly recognize this weakness in their leader and are effective in identifying ways to exploit her inability to make a decision for their own ends.
  • After a period of time, management by consensus damages the working environment, grinds productivity to a halt, puts any hope of innovation out of mind and demoralizes the employees.  In the negative, management by consensus is remarkably powerful!

What’s a New Leader to Do?

  • Ensure that you are always well-grounded in understanding your team’s objectives and how they impact the pursuit of the firm’s strategic priorities.
  • Cultivate your skills in developing and asking questions as a means to sift through the ideas, issues and thoughts of your associates.
  • You pay people to manage and decide–provide the opportunity for them to do so and to take risks and fail.  Politely answer their "What should I do?" questions with: "What do you think you should do?"
  • You need to assert yourself when an incorrect decision might take an individual or team off-course from the organization’s objectives.  You will be unpopular to some but respected by all for making a decision.  You are in charge..don’t delegate responsibility for the key issues.
  • Treat dissenting issues and dissenters with respect.  Often the difference in opinion is small but the semantics make it appear big.  It is appropriate to seek clarity for people’s perspectives.  You should look for the nugget of gold in every perspective…but you don’t have to combine the nuggets at the same time. 
  • Depersonalize the issues and decision-criteria.  Make certain that you are focusing on the business impact of an issue.
  • Resist the political ploy of "decision making avoidance" as a strategy for survival.  While your name will not be attached to bad decisions if you use this common tactic, your name will not be attached to any successes either.  It’s a flawed strategy. 

Decision-making in Play:

When Dwight Eisenhower served as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II, he faced the dilemma of sending many to their deaths with the invasion of Normandy.  Balancing many variables, the window to go or wait came down to a poor set of choices.  On the day planned for the invasion, the weather was uncooperative and the fog and cloud cover would keep Allied bombers from supporting the invasion force.  Eisenhower’s team was split over the decision to invade or postpone.  As was observed and reported, Eisenhower stared out the window into the fog for a long moment, turned around and said, "We’ll go."  The fates of many and the world political order were sealed in that decision.  The rest is history.

Recently, the Illinois football team was on the brink of beating number one ranked Ohio State.  It was 4th and 1 in Illinois territory with over 8 minutes to go and the Illinois coach decided to punt.  For some reason, Ohio State called a timeout and during this interval, the Illinois QB convinced the coach that they had not worked hard, practiced early and long for months (and for much of their lives) to give the ball back to Ohio State and lose with a potential drive.  The coach reversed his decision, Illinois went on to make the first down and ultimately eat up the clock en-route to the major upset of the year. 

There is no right way for all situations.  Decision-making is an art form–as a leader, you need to cultivate yours.  Just don’t let the tyranny of consensus rule your style.