Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe ‒ 4 Options for Decision Making
Some very interesting people attended the leadership skills programs I’ve taught. One was Dan, a recently promoted supervisor who’d spent many years in the Navy. In the program, we talked about the value of having discussions with employees regarding work assignments, upcoming changes and decision making. It was critical, I explained, to listen to employee input and concerns, and then reach consensus on the best way forward.
Dan struggled mightily with this concept and readily admitted he longed for the simple and straightforward military-style of management. “It was nice,” he said, “to just tell someone to do something and know they would carry out the orders. I say it; you do it.”
He especially struggled with the skill of team decision-making. With his military background and combat leadership role, it was engrained in him that decision making was strictly done with a top-down, autocratic approach. We discussed in class how this was, no doubt, essential with most military decisions, especially in battle.
His fellow classmates talked about how that autocratic style of decision making couldn’t be his only or first choice as a manager. Employees are likely to move on quickly to another job when faced with an autocratic boss who couldn’t care less about what his or her employees have to say.
Supervisors and managers have four options when it comes to decision-making style:
Each has its own positive and negative attributes.
This military-style of decision making has the obvious benefits of speed and simplicity. There’s no discussion or deliberation, and sometimes that’s appropriate. Some decisions just have to be made right now.
This could also be the right style to use when you are truly the only person with the information needed to make a good decision. This is often the case when making decisions about confidential matters or personnel issues.
As mentioned above, employees typically don’t enjoy working for an autocratic leader. And, since they weren’t part of the decision making, they will be less enthusiastic about supporting it. They may feel excluded and resentful, particularly if you make what they perceive to be a poor decision.
Which brings up another outcome of autocratic decisions; you own it. You acted on your own, so you are solely responsible for the outcome. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Leaders must sometimes make big decisions, perhaps contrary to what is either popular or considered to be the right decision. If that decision proves to have been a good one, your reputation and credibility skyrocket. If the outcome goes sideways, your reputation will suffer and your leadership abilities questioned. Autocratic decision-making can be risky.
In consultative decision-making, you still make the decision and own the outcome, but you don’t make the choice on your own. Instead, you ask others for their input. You may be “running your idea up the flagpole” to see how people will respond or may really be in doubt about the best choice and need the opinions of others.
You are, of course, an intelligent, insightful and thoughtful leader; but you can’t know everything about everything. Input from others ensures you will benefit from their perspectives and knowledge. This assumes you ask the right people. Getting input only from people you think will agree with you does little to improve decision quality. It’s far better, although more challenging, to consult those who you know will question your decision.
Asking others for input pays off in increased engagement. It demonstrates you value them and their opinion. That, however, can come back to bite you. Your decision probably won’t align with the input of everyone you consult. It requires a skillful manager to keep someone’s trust and support when you ask their opinion and then fail to follow it.
This is one of the slower decision-making options. The consultation process may take some time.
As with autocratic decision-making, you own the decision. But in most cases it will be a better decision as a result of the input gathered from others.
It’s probably fair to describe the next style, democratic decision-making, as the opposite of autocratic. When you opt for a democratic decision, you delegate control. In most cases, this process moves pretty quickly. The group votes and the majority carries the day. Hopefully, there will be some deliberation and discussion rather than a straight up-or-down vote, but that’s up to the team.
One of the biggest drawbacks to this style is that there’s little accountability. No individual is responsible for the outcome. Another drawback is that, if the group is polarized on the issue, only the winners will strongly support the outcome. Not only might the “losers” remain opposed to it, they may actively attempt to undermine it to prove the wrong choice was made.
One strong caveat when delegating decision making is that you need to be clear regarding what you are asking them to decide. Be explicit about the scope, goals and parameters of their charge. You can document this in writing or verbally share the information with the group. If you do the latter, have someone replay what he or she heard. That process almost always uncovers misunderstandings.
I saved the best for last. I say “best” meaning this is typically the decision-making style that provides the best overall outcome.
When you decide by consensus, you give up total control of the decision; it belongs to the group, with you facilitating the process. Everyone has a voice, ensuring the broadest range of input and perspectives. You benefit from the knowledge and experience of all members of the group, increasing the likelihood they will select or develop the optimal course of action.
The group owns the decision, making buy-in for the outcome the strongest of the four decision-making styles. They are each responsible for the outcome and will, therefore, be more committed to its success.
The biggest downside is that this is the most time-consuming option. Reaching consensus can be laborious, requiring skillful facilitation on your part. In the end, it may not be possible to reach consensus. When that happens, the best fallback approach is democratic.
What’s the Right Decision-Making Style?
Asking that question is like asking what is the most important tool in your toolbox. Each tool has a different purpose and each of these decision-making styles are the right style to use in different situations. You will routinely be faced with decisions, from trivial to critical. Depending on the nature of the decision, how urgently a decision is needed and other factors, you can choose the most appropriate decision-making style.
Choose wisely. Managing the decision-making process well will ensure making the best choices for your organization, building team engagement and enhancing your reputation as an effective manager.