By: Suzanne Bates and Andy Atkins
As leaders we can’t make all the decisions, nor would we want to. While we have considerable experience on which to draw, we can’t possible have all the answers. We need input from the organization – not just data but opinions, perspective and scrutiny. The question is when should we make the call, and when should we let others decide?
We utilize a model familiar in leadership originally developed through the work of Victor Vroom at Yale. Our version highlights four types of decisions. Defining them is the first step to determining which one to use when.
A familiar form of decision making is Command, which means the leader decides without input. While many think of this as “old style” leadership, it has a very important purpose in driving execution. When might this be appropriate? A commander taking control on the field of battle; an emergency room surgeon leading a team to save a life; a leader with an organization in a state of emergency or crisis. It can also be very appropriate to use the Command style when an issue is not particularly controversial. And command is also right when an issue is confidential.
The next type of decision is the Consult. This is where the leader solicits input from the team or group but makes it clear that he or she will make the call. Consultation decisions work well when the group has expertise to share, but will not necessarily be involved in leading the project or executing the plan. A team might for example be asked to advise the leader on a strategic recommendation to senior management. They might be tapped to suggest an approach to take with another part of the organization. It works when you need to make sure people have a voice and would be satisfied their views have been heard.
The next type of decision, Collaborate, can be misunderstood, as it does not imply that everyone must agree. One of the secrets to a collaborative decision is to establish how much consensus is needed. In other words, we can generate options and select one, then ask the question – is there anyone who cannot live with this decision? Reaching a collaborative decision is a process that takes time but is well worth the effort. Collaboration decisions are essential when the team needs to be aligned on problem solving and is responsible for execution.
A Constrain decision is appropriate though perhaps even higher on the scale of degree of difficulty for many leaders who like to make the call. In a constrain decision, the leader delegates the decision to another person or group. This works best when the leader provides direction and guidelines for the decision. In essence, this is delegation. Leaders should employ this strategy more often to free up their time to focus their intellect and energy where it serves the highest purpose.
How to Decide Who Decides
It’s pretty easy to figure out which type of decision much of the time, if you and your team know how to use them all. If you don’t you may default to one or two more often than you should. If you don’t establish which type of decision you’re making it creates confusion on a team. For instance, if people think you’re asking them to decide and then you make a different call they’ll soon learn their opinions don’t really count. Even if it wasn’t your intent, this can be very dispiriting for a team.
You can also unwittingly undermine team effectiveness by failing to make decisions that really are yours to make. There are decisions that rest on your shoulders and sometimes it isn’t even appropriate to involve others. A private or confidential matter is a good example. People on the team have a sense of what is appropriate and appreciate it when you set the right boundaries.
When it isn’t obvious which type of decision to make it is worth opening that up for discussion. Solicit views from the team and then clarify what type of decision it will be. Stick with that decision once it is made so you don’t appear to be changing the rules to get the decision you want.
Does Your Team Have Decision-Making Versatility?
When a new CEO took over a global company, he had been a member of the senior management team, led by a highly directive leader. After five years under this previous CEO, the team had fallen into complacency. The new CEO couldn’t get them to declare their views. He knew instinctively that to drive transformation they’d need to take up the habit of healthy debate. It took some facilitation and sustained encouragement but it was well worth it, as they learned to debate it actually sped up decision making and took the pressure off of the CEO to make all the calls.
Teams that have grown accustomed to a more autocratic style of decision making simply need to learn to flex new muscles. They need to practice taking a stand on issues outside their immediate area of expertise. In contrast, teams that debate everything as if it were critical resist delegating responsibility to individuals or groups for a constrained decision. It’s important to address these habits to help your team have a versatile range of decision-making options. Relying on one method or another means you won’t get the best out of people when you need to and you won’t reach the best decisions.
How Much Time Should Decisions Take?
We call out the importance of making “time bound” decisions in collaboration, because teams make better decisions when they face a deadline. The appropriate amount of data combined with a sense of urgency gets people to focus on what is important and to forget the rest. You can time bind any type of decision so long as there is a balance of appropriate discovery and consideration with the drive to take action.
As experienced leaders know, you never have all the facts. You balance information and risk. Colin Powell observed that when you face a tough decision you should have no less than 40% and no more than 70% of the information you need to make a decision. Most decisions have consequences, but most are not life and death. They can be modified and sometimes reversed.
How to Flex Your Decision-Making Muscles
If you suspect that you are relying too much on one way of making decisions, now is a good time to try something new. Have fun with it. Be open. Experiment, even if it isn’t entirely comfortable. Then, step back to notice what went well and what could have gone better.
It’s never a bad time to evaluate how decisions are being made. So much of an organizations energy, talent and capacity can be unleashed when you get this right. Working through issues and making decisions can be a very satisfying activity when a group feels they have a range of options.
If you’d like to learn more about how to facilitate better decision-making, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org