One of my pet peeves of the workplace is going to meeting after meeting after meeting without one decision ever being made. There is no shortage of reasons as to why teams, managers, and organizations fail to make decisions. Here are a few:
– Avoid angering one or more members of a group or team.
– Desire to maintain the status quo.
– Fear of making the wrong choice.
– Keep more options on the table rather than choose one.
– Fail to take a leadership position.
One or more of the above obstacles have and can throw you under the bus in the workplace and other business dealings. Recalling a familiar adage by Alan Lakein, a well-known author on time management, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” This familiar expression may apply to other areas of one’s life including decision-making.
Business and STEM professionals are faced with making dozens of decisions each day. If you are a member of the management team, the number of decisions that need to be made increase in size and complexity. More importantly, most employers and managers receive little training on making good or better decisions even though decision analysis has been a growing field of study over the past 50 years. While most people fear speaking in public, making a work-related decision and being held accountable for it also ranks high on the worse things to fear list.
In his Forbes post, 4 Ways For Leaders to Make a Decision [Ref 1], Brent Gleeson provides these basic decision-making styles that leaders often use:
- Command – Leaders make decisions without consulting their teams. This is an effective style, especially when things are moving quickly and the team is looking for immediate guidance. In a business setting, leaders use this style the most effectively on large financial decisions and in crisis situations.
- Collaborative – Leaders gather their teams and request feedback and insight. The leader still makes the final call, but is armed with the proper data to make a more informed decision.
- Consensus – Leaders gather their teams and everyone votes. Majority rules. This process can work well when the outcome of the decision affects the entire team, and generally won’t immediately affect the bottom line. In a quick-moving business environment, this is not the most efficient way to make a decision, but there are still some decisions that would benefit from this method. [More discussion on the consensus style of decision-making is included below in this post.]
- Convenience – Complete delegation or convenience decision-making by the manager allows her to hand over some decision-making responsibilities to those team members who are best suited to handle them. In doing so, one can empower team managers and grow their skills creating a better management team and giving them the confidence they need as their responsibilities increase.
Today’s business climate requires executives, managers, and workers to make good decisions quickly, and sometimes at the speed of light to keep the business and operations humming along. Most leaders know that they should not make every decision alone or in a vacuum. Given the obsession with data analytics and decision analysis, more often than not there is available information that can be reviewed to improve the decision-making process.
Given all of the above, too many managers and others tasked to make decisions revert to a flight-or-fight mode. Even when there are tools available to assist them, all too often they revert to these two options:
a. No Action
By now, most of my readers have watched the movie, Hidden Figures, at least once. The movie chronicles the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.
One of the high points in the movie is when human computer Katharine Jackson approaches Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group (STG) with a request to attend Pentagon Briefing Meetings. Her reason for wanting to do so is to gain access to more timely information and data for her trajectory calculations. Paul Stafford, head engineer in STG, tells Harrison that Jackson does not have clearance for these briefings and there is no protocol for women to attend these meetings.
After some wrangling, Harrison says to Jackson and Stafford: Who makes the rules for stuff like this? Jackson responds: If you are the supervisor, then you could make that decision. You are the boss, you just have to act like one, (pause) Sir!
While most of us prefer to work for more decisive managers like Al Harrison in Hidden Figures, regrettably, too many bosses revert to the No Action alternative as the solution or answer when approached with difficult questions and issues that require decision-making. No Action is also known as the Do Nothing or Status Quo choice. Every decision will not be easy! The bigger question is how significant will the outcome(s) and result(s) be, and what effect it will have on business operations?
Regrettably, too many managers believe that selecting No Action avoids making a decision. In reality, No Action is a decision and the results of this decision may show up the next day or one year later. Failure to act or decide have had negative consequences on the decision maker and/or those whose lives and careers where interrupted as a result of their decision.
Another strategy that is overused and not always the best method for decision-making is the consensus approach. Judging from the quotes of Abba Eban and Margaret Thatcher, some folks are not very fond of this approach at all.
“A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively
what no one believes individually.”
Abba Eban – Israeli diplomat and politician (b. 1915 – d. 2002)
“Consensus: The process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?’”
Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister of Great Britain (b. 1925 – d. 2013)
Gleeson states that the consensus process can work well in certain situations. What is notable and should not be missed is that agreement by consensus is not every single person voting “yes” or “no”. A simple majority is often not sufficient for consensus voters. Everyone at the table must agree one way or the other.
One important element of the consensus decision-making method is that it tries to avoid “winners” and “losers”. If one is utilizing the true consensus decision-making strategy, it requires that a certain majority approve a given course of action, but that the minority also agree to go along with the course of action. In other words, if the minority opposes the course of action, consensus requires that the course of action be modified to remove objectionable features. [Source: Wikipedia]
Too often we decide not to decide! Too many managers will blame the lack of consensus for not making a decision. Making a decision based on sound logic and reasoning does not and never had anything to do with gaining a consensus from everyone at the table and sometimes those not at the table. Why does the organization need to wait until every single person agrees before the team, group, person, project or task can move ahead?
Regrettably, I have seen numerous opportunities – promotions, assignments, trips, training and course work, etc. – for myself and others derailed because of the lack of consensus within the management ranks or among team members. In many cases, all of those sitting at the table didn’t need to be at the table to make a particular decision. Having a manager say, “Well, I didn’t want anyone on the team to be angry,” never cut it for me. And all too often those same folks at the table never seemed to really care if I and those who looked like me were unhappy or that our needs were unmet. Therefore, remind me again why you decided not to decide?
Simply put, too many women, persons of colors and white males who fall outside of the good ole boy network have been derailed by the lack of consensus and/or failure by those in charge to make a decision.
Too bad we don’t have enough managers with the fortitude and spinal cord of Al Harrison, former NASA STG Director, who was tasked to make some critical decisions about gender and race in the early 1960s while another major event in U.S. history was also occurring: the Civil Rights Movement.
1. 4 Ways For Leaders to Make a Decision, by Brett Gleason, Forbes Contributor, November 7, 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brentgleeson/2012/11/07/4-ways-for-leaders-to-make-a-decision/#3ea05164d4a1
Updates: This post was updated on 10.24.2017 at 8:32 p.m. EDT.