Make A Decision! Or Risk Losing Respect

I love the meme: Be Decisive. The Road of Life is Paved With A lot of Flattened Squirrels That Couldn’t Make a Decision.  Ok so we aren’t talking about life or death decisions here but the consequences for failing to make decisions can be dire.

I have served as an Executive Coach for nearly twenty years and in that time I have heard many candid reviews about leaders from those they lead.  One of the #1 complaints?  Leaders who can’t make decisions.

I can assure you, if you are a leader that hems, haws and drags your feet making decisions you are causing great frustration for your team.  Leadership means providing direction and order for people to do their work effectively.  Part of that responsibility is making decisions that impact their priorities, resource allocation and clarity of expectations and goals.  When leaders take too much time making these critical decisions, they hold up progress from every layer under them in the organization.

Leaders must make decisions every day. The best leaders are transparent in their decision-making. They communicate how decisions will be made and make clear to those who report into them what levels of decision making authority and autonomy they have  within their areas.

Context matters in decision making.  Different situations call for different styles of decision making. Leaders have several to choose from — there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Here are four primary decision making styles to consider:

Authoritative: The leader decides and then communicates a decision. This style is best for scenarios with urgent tight time frames (a crisis) or when the leader is the only person with the insight or information necessary to make the call. Wise leaders avoid overuse of this style. They know using it means risking little or no buy-in to their decision.

Consultative: This style is about getting input from the team prior to a leader making a decision. A leader might begin from scratch with this style, saying “I am going to make a decision but I want your input before I do, what do you think about…?” or, “I have narrowed my decision to two options, but before I decide I want to run these two options by you to get your input.”  I encourage leaders to use this style generously. Why? It allows for influence and input from others (thereby increasing buy-in, commitment and reducing risk) but keeps clarity around who is making the decision (you, the leader) intact. A word of caution: If you aren’t open to influence, don’t pretend you are. It’s a huge mistake- I have stories about how it can backfire. Be prepared to disclose your rationale for not following recommendations or suggestions and don’t take too long to make the call once you get the input.

Consensus: With this style (FYI you lose your right to veto as the leader), essentially the team agrees to support the decision of the group. The plus — this often results in buy-in and commitment. The minus — trying to achieve consensus can be difficult and time-consuming. One stubborn person can hold up the process thereby creating the  “tyranny” of consensus. Trying to make all team decisions by consensus is a recipe for team frustration and struggle. Consensus shouldn’t be attempted with challenging decisions that require responsiveness and timely action.

Delegation: With this style, leaders give their decision-making authority away to others. This styles builds individual and team confidence/satisfaction (autonomy is a huge motivator for people) and it makes sense when someone clearly has more experience, skill and understanding required to make the call. Make sure to provide clear parameters when delegating.

I frequently observe and coach team meetings and often ask the question, “Who has decision-making authority over this?” Too often, no one knows. Meetings are a tremendous investment in resources; having clarity around decision-making authority, commitment and accountability are critical to bottom-line results. For critical or complex initiatives, or if the majority of your meetings are spent wasting time, getting expert help to achieve results may be in order.

Team Building Stages

Being a member or leader of a workplace team can be a frustrating experience, particularly if your team is ineffective or routinely gets mired in unhealthy conflict.

Take comfort in knowing that all teams go through “stages” before reaching a level of high performance.

What follows is an outline of the typical stages a work team will go through, based on Bruce Tuckman’s group development model, and some practical tips for how to work through them.

Stage 1: Forming

Remember what it’s like attending the first meeting of a new team or group? People are often cautious, tentative and even nervous when they first come together. Members at this stage tend to politely focus on “safe” subjects (the weather) and avoid controversy as they get to know one another. Internally, people mull their concerns and judgments around trust, leadership and expectations (Is someone going to keep us on track and hold me/us accountable?).

During this “forming” stage, team leaders need to provide structure, direction, safety and order by:

  • Identifying methods and activities that help put the team at ease and get acquainted.
  • Letting members know why they have been chosen and what their role is.
  • Defining goals.
  • Establishing norms of acceptable team behavior, including your expectation that members will openly and respectfully voice their views and concerns.
  • Being transparent, genuine and open about how you lead a team (including how decisions will be made).

Stage 2: Storming

This stage can be very difficult — and those who naturally avoid conflict likely will be uncomfortable. The initial politeness of the forming stage gives way to risk taking, exposure of the “hidden agendas,” turf guarding and the emergence of conflict. Misunderstandings, confusion, tensions and emotions rise as members start testing the boundaries of power, decision making and control. This is the stage where the differences in individual attitude, perceptions, goals and skills (including emotional intelligence) tend to emerge — and they will! Yet, storming is both natural and necessary.

Leading a team through this stage can be trying for even the most seasoned leader. The most common reasons for storming are also the areas leaders need to focus on — including unclear roles, goals/expectations, lack of commitment/accountability, misunderstandings and improving the emotional intelligence of the team. Teams often get stuck at this stage and to get past it requires effective leadership and facilitation skills. Some leaders will need to make tough calls for the sake of team performance (those who are unwilling to be accountable or commit to the team should be culled).

Really stuck teams with potential and commitment may require outside facilitation help. To move past this stage leaders need to facilitate team process by:

  • Surfacing conflicts and getting issues out in the open.
  • Coaching team members to give each other constructive criticism and feedback.
  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities — address any issues, concerns or confusion.
  • Re-establishing, clarifying or modifying team norms (ground rules) for working together effectively.

Stage 3: Norming

Teams that work through the storming stage are often rewarded with a calmer, more focused and collaborative team environment. Having learned productive ways to work through their differences, creativity and team camaraderie emerges.

The focus now shifts to how we will accomplish our work together. There is more sharing of information, less turf guarding and renewed focus on how to accomplish team goals collaboratively. Leader “to-dos” during this stage:

  • Identify individual members’ strengths and weaknesses — and how members can support one another more effectively.
  • Focus on improved processes — including decision making, planning, tracking and accountability.
  • Encourage expanded team building/camaraderie, pride and acknowledgment.

Stage 4: Performing

Not all teams will make it to this stage. Those that do will experience the pride, energy and excitement that comes with team unity, creative synergy and accomplishment. Teams that reach this stage are highly productive with an emphasis on achievement of team goals and an environment of high trust, morale and loyalty. They balance time and attention spent on a) task and b) fostering team trust and ways to work better together. Having knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, team members support experimentation (such as adjusting team members’ roles to the changing needs of the team or individuals). Most important, team members can engage in productive debate to determine best solutions. Recommended actions to stay in this stage:

  • Debrief regularly how well the team is working with each other.
  • Re-evaluate team member roles and plans.
  • Build in rewards and fun to keep morale high.

The intensity and duration of these stages vary depending on the team, leadership skills and situation. Some teams can hit the performing stage in a matter of weeks; for others it can take months. Others will never hit it. Whenever a team takes on a new member or loses one, it naturally recycles back to Stage 1.  I can help you with team coaching and building your ability to coach a high performing workplace team;  360 682 5807.  I coach via Skype or Facetime anywhere in the world.