Decision Making Styles for Leaders

Leaders must make decisions every day. The most effective leaders are transparent about their decision-making. They communicate to their people how decisions will be made and establish a clear definition of decision-making authority for their teams and direct reports to follow.

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 styles to consider:

Authoritative: With this management decision-making style, the leader decides and then delivers a unilateral decision. There are certainly situations (a crisis, or when you are the only one with the insight or information necessary) that call for this “old school” style. Leaders need to be able to take charge and/or champion a cause. Yet wise leaders avoid overuse of this style. They know that using it means risking little or no buy-in to their decision.

Consultative: With this style, leaders consult with their people and gather input before making the decision. When used effectively, they communicate to those providing input where they are in their process. For example, “I want your input from the beginning on this,” or “I am down to two options, I am leaning toward x … and want to get your opinion.” As an organizational development consultant, I often encourage leaders to use this style more than they typically do. 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. Effective leaders will be prepared to discuss their rationale or reasons for not following recommendations or suggestions.

Consensus: With this style, essentially everyone agrees to support the decision of the group. You lose your right to veto as the leader. The plus — this often results in buy-in and commitment from team members. The minus — trying to achieve consensus is difficult and time-consuming. One person can hold up the process (the “tyranny” of consensus). Local author and consultant Robert Crosby wisely writes in his book, “The Authentic Leader:”

“The positive intent on consensus is to significantly involve people in decision-making. The negative intent and frequent consequence is to stifle action and give power to the most stubborn.” Consensus can be a great choice for those decisions that require a high level of team commitment to succeed. But 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 can be a good strategy to allow those closest to the task at hand to make the call, to grow the skills of others and/or when someone else clearly has more experience, skill and understanding than you do. In a nutshell, when delegating, make sure to offer clear parameters, then ask those taking over this responsibility to summarize their understanding. See next week’s column for tips about how to delegate wisely.

Here are a few important guidelines around decision making:

  • Communicate your decision-making style (depending on the situation) so that others in your group or on your team know how the decision will be made.
  • Honor the followers’ role in the decision-making style that you have chosen (don’t say, “I want your opinion,” if you have already made an authoritative decision).
  • When practical, avoid only bouncing between the extremes of making authoritative decisions and consensus; delegation and the consultative methods are more reliable styles that support organizational teamwork

As an external consultant, I am frequently asked to 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.

In today’s dynamic workplace, effective decision-making is critical to achieving organizational objectives.

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