In our work as consultants, we often find ourselves assessing the team dynamic among the members of a given executive team. It may be as a prelude to doing leadership development work with the group. Or as part of the front-end assessment to a strategic planning process. Or as context to an executive coaching engagement with the CEO or one of the team members.
No matter what the context, we never fail to probe the group’s decision-making process.
We ask members to describe what it’s like, how it works. We ask how satisfied they are with it, how they usually feel about the quality of decisions that result, and so on.
No surprise that we place this much importance on this aspect of senior leaders’ responsibility. You could make the case that there’s nothing more important for an executive team than their ability to work through and arrive at high-quality decisions that get widespread support and achieve good results for their businesses.
But you would be surprised how often we discover ambiguity, dissatisfaction, occasional grumbling and even resentment in the C-suite about this very important aspect of executive leadership. The frequency with which we encounter this problem is even more surprising when you consider how relatively easy it is to fix or avoid altogether!
Deciding – Clearly – How To Decide
Part one of the remedy is ensuring clarity – about the kind of decision to be made and who owns it. We always introduce executive teams to the classic decision-making model developed by Vroom and Yetton:
Power Closely Held Majority Rules Power Dispersed
1 2 3 4 5
Directive Consultative Democratic Consensual Unanimous
— adapted from Vroom and Yetton, Leadership and Decision-Making
As the model illustrates, the ways or methods of arriving at decisions are arrayed along a continuum from power and authority that’s closely held to widely shared. What’s key is to match the nature of the decision to be made to the method of decision-making most appropriate for it.
Let’s assume, for instance, that you’re the CEO or, for that matter, the leader of any division or group. No doubt there are certain areas, perhaps such as policy or government regulations, where you are clearly responsible for making the decision using the “Directive” method.
On the other hand, there will be other times where you clearly need to access the views or expertise of members of your team to ensure a quality decision. In that case, you might either poll team members individually or in a group setting, using the “Consultative” approach, while still reserving to yourself the authority to make the final decision.
In situations where you’re prepared to allow the majority opinion to carry the day, you might use the “Democratic” approach by simply taking a vote. There’s a risk here, though. Under circumstances where you need everyone’s support, voting can create a “winner/loser” syndrome which can sometimes lessen commitment to implementation among the “losers.”
Far better, but certainly more complicated and time-consuming, is the “Consensus” alternative. And, frankly, this is the method we use most frequently in our work with clients. Here, you take steps to ensure that everyone engages in an open, informed and unbiased discussion of the case at hand and the various solution options. You ensure that everyone – including the mavericks –have their say. This discussion needs to progress until options are fairly vetted and everyone feels truly heard. Eventually, the consensus of the group should become clear even to those who don’t share it. You know you’ve achieved consensus when even those holding the “minority” view are prepared to support the consensus decision because they truly feel that they’ve had the opportunity in a fair and open process to advance their views.
Achieving consensus can often be challenging and time-consuming. But it’s the most appropriate decision-making alternative when commitment to the decision among key stakeholders after the fact is critical.
Interestingly enough, the term “consensus” is often used interchangeably with the last option in the spectrum, “Unanimous Agreement.” As what we’ve already said above makes clear, that’s inaccurate. Unanimous agreement means just that: everyone agrees. And, there are certainly instances in which groups can and do achieve total agreement in decision-making.
In our experience working with real people in the business world, however, unanimous agreement is often impossible to achieve, especially in situations where many issues are being discussed among individuals with strong opinions and competing agendas. It’s for this reason that we find ourselves using the consensus method so often with our clients. It has the advantage of paying due respect to differences of opinion, while acknowledging that matters must move forward once those differing views and perspectives have been appropriately considered.
These, then, are the major alternative methods for arriving at a quality decision. And part one of our remedy for fuzzy decision-making is being absolutely clear as to which of these methods you’ll be using and, consequently, who will ultimately make a given decision.
Being Intentional About Decision-Making: Up-Front Announcement
Part two of the remedy, frankly, may seem simplistic and self-evident, but in our experience it’s often neglected. Consider this: A meeting happens. A discussion takes place. It seems to suggest that a decision is imminent. But somehow the meeting trails off, and now no one is really sure “what we decided” or even “if we decided.” Or, perhaps, the leader is going to make the ultimate decision “offline”? No one’s really sure.
Avoiding this syndrome is really simple. First, it’s imperative that you be intentional and concrete by announcing clearly and publicly that a decision is required on this particular matter. “Common sense,” you say! Perhaps, but you’d be surprised at how frequently it’s not done.
Next, selecting the most appropriate option from the Vroom-Yetton spectrum, you also announce precisely how the decision will be arrived at. And here’s the critical point: You should define and clarify the decision-making method you’ll be using before beginning the decision-making process.
Nothing saps commitment or causes ill will like the suspicion that someone is “pulling a fast one” or “monkeying” with the decision-making process real-time, during a meeting, in order to further their personal agenda. To surprise a group in the midst of a heated discussion, for example, with the sudden announcement that you are ultimately making the call when they expected a group decision is the ultimate de-motivator.
To sum up, then, the keys here are being intentional and crystal clear – in advance – by announcing, both that a decision will be made and precisely how it will be made. There will be times, we’re sure, when you’ll inform your team that a given issue will be decided by you and you alone. But they’ll at least be clear on that.
On other occasions, you’ll announce, that you’ll be “consulting” with everyone on an issue in the coming days so that you can make an informed decision. Again, everybody knows what to expect.
Then, too, in the case of a big decision that requires widespread support for implementation, you’ll more likely announce that you’re planning a meeting at which the desired outcome is to achieve a group consensus on the important issue. Again, clear, transparent, up-front.
Better Decision-Making For Better Leadership
You’ll be surprised at how much more open members of your team can be in discussions when everybody knows clearly, in advance, “what game we’re playing” and how we’re going to go about it. The assurance that the decision-making “rules of the road” are clearly known and apply equally to all usually helps mitigate selfish, personal agendas. Then, taking their cues from your clarity, evenhandedness and transparency, your team members can focus, in good faith, on making the best possible decision for your company.
And that, quite simply, translates into more effective leadership for you!