Whether it’s because they are too scared, too self conscious, too dithery - too lazy – some managers just won’t make a decision. Or they’ll make several in the space of a sentence. “Yes, let’s go with Plan A…what? You don’t think so? Well, actually I thought Plan B was impressive, let’s…No? I agree. I was just about to say C is definitely the way to go…”
Some managers and executives go to extraordinary efforts to avoid making decisions. Holding lots of meetings is a common means of glorifying indecision. “Let’s meet on this next week” is not a decision. But it does buy breathing space. Appointing committees and task forces is another common dodge as is the old faithful: appointing management consultants.
Leaders who are not blessed with the ability to make decisions have a certain knack – practiced over many years – for getting decisions made around them and for them, while giving every appearance of being in control. (Critics of former US President Ronald Reagan argued he was such a leader.)
Managers and executives who are decisionn shy will specifically or tacitly delegate decisions to others: they understand decisions have to be made, they just don’t want to be the ones making them.
From the office-floor team to the C-suite, the decision-making by proxy model can work if leaders are sufficiently self-aware to surround themselves with reliable and talented “doers” who make the necessary calls.
CEOs who place the emphasis on leadership teams and distributed decision making – either to deflect responsibility for making decisions, and/or because they genuinely believe it results in better decisions – usually possess other key leadership attributes. They might be great big-picture thinkers, motivators, communicators, or champions for their organisation and its employees. (Even Reagan’s critics grudgingly concede the Great Communicator possessed formidable leadership qualities.)
But in most cases, managers who progress their careers without hitting the sides of a decision are doing more harm than good, particularly when they get to a point when decisions can be “mission critical”.
One of the realities of an under performing organisation is that even when beset with poor decision-making, decisions half-made and decisions avoided, the organisation possesses a certain level of auto-functionality. Its employees keep things ticking over despite management’s inadequacy. In buoyant times this might even be enough but it’s when the economy turns or markets change that poor leadership reveals itself in all its inadequacies. (The Global Financial Crisis revealed just this phenomenon when many CEOs did a very good imitation of being caught in the headlights of a fast approaching train.)
The risk of indecisive management, whether lazy or incompetent, is it saps morale, provides little incentive for employees who would normally go the extra mile for a manager they admire, and can eventually corrode the underpinnings of a strong brand or reputation.
But how do these vacillating managers get ahead? Very often it’s a case of the wrong person promoted to the wrong job for the wrong reasons. Companies very rarely seek decision-making prowess in people marked for promotion – but they should. Promoting on the basis of technical skills and seniority may reward for past service but reveals very little about how that employee will respond to future challenges.
Some companies when hiring executives and key personnel use psychometric tests and simulations at the recruitment stage to probe candidates’ problem-solving and decision-making skills. These are companies determined to adapt, grow and prosper in an unpredictable, rapidly changing economy. For these companies, decisions are life and death.
But it’s also true there is a generation of skittish companies in continual cut-back mode – particularly since the GFC – that favour risk-averse managers whose chief management task is to do more with less. Such companies create demotivating cultures that discourage innovation and creativity not just in their workplaces but in their managers as well. There are managers who believe that “No”, “Not right now” and “Maybe next year” is the extent of a good manager’s lexicon.
An uncertain economy, particularly one that is experiencing vast changes in consumer behaviour, business models and industry structures, can stifle decision making at the best of times, but especially in companies with a risk-averse culture. When there is a good chance of getting it wrong, no decision seems a much safer option.
Decisions can’t all be right decisions and the right decisions are more likely to come with experience. And experience necessarily includes making wrong decisions. To quote management thinker Tony Soprano: “A wrong decision is better than indecision.”
Making mistakes is an inevitable part of making decisions; it is not an excuse for not making decisions. But once that attitude takes root it can permeate the entire organisation.
US management consultant Ram Charan writes of a “culture of indecision” that can occur when executives feel constrained from offering their honest views at a leadership meeting while they attempt to second-guess the CEO; the CEO, meanwhile, delays his decision because of what he sees as his leadership team’s ambivalence.
Charam writes of this scenario in Harvard Business Review and argues it reflects a failure of trust, openness and ultimately leadership:
“These faulty interactions rarely occur in isolation," he says. "Far more often, they’re typical of the way large and small decisions are made – or not made – throughout a company. The inability to take decisive action is rooted in the corporate culture and seems to employees to be impervious to change.”
Traditionally, when management was more art than science, decisions were often a matter of instinct, judgement and experience. In these data-rich times, in which every business process is subject to measurement, some managers feel they cannot offer an opinion, much less make a decision, unless they have the research, and a PowerPoint presentation, to back up every word.
Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats” technique is based on his concept of “parallel thinking”, in which meeting participants are encouraged to consider ideas or problems from different perspectives before making a decision.
The point of this simple technique – often clouded by the gobbledygook that unfortunately goes with de Bono’s “tools” and methodologies – is that from open, honest and considered communication will flow the best informed decisions. This is as true in the boardroom as it is on the office floor.
Organisations that do not encourage decisions to flow freely are depriving themselves of their lifeblood. Decisions are the fruits of a vibrant and dynamic workplace, one that recognises the value of employees, honours the benefits of experience, encourages the exploration of ideas and is always open to new and better ways of doing things.
Such a culture can only be informed and championed by the leadership of an organisation and when it takes root the whole organisation flourishes.
It is worth asking this question: how easy is it for managers to make decisions in our organisation?
Leo D'Angelo Fisher specialises in the practice and malpractice of management. In more than three decades as a business journalist he has worked for BRW, The Australian Financial Review and a range of other business magazines in Australia and Hong Kong. His sometimes acerbic observations of management and its fads has brought him a wide following. He blogs at leodangelofisher.com.
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