the ceo magazine, decision making

The movement advocating consensus decision-making happened at about the same time as the human resources movement emerged. People researched democratic decision-making, advocated for more group involvement, and promised new-found synergy among members of the decision-making team. But not until the past five years have leaders sought to have their direct reports *like* their decisions.

Of course, they don’t use the verb “like”; they say they will “vet” or “socialize” the decision, but like their Facebook counterparts, they really seek approval. In my more than three decades of consulting, I have seldom found the right decision to be the popular one. In fact, the unpopular ones usually decide the course of history and business. Therefore, when I encounter approval-seeking leaders, I ask these questions:

  • Why would you surrender a strategic decision? Do you socialize your financial plans, succession plan, promotion, and incentive decisions? Do you socialize your board meetings?
  • Will you tell the board that your subordinates caused this delay / cost overrun / problem?
  • Will all the people on your team share equally in the blame if you do nothing?  Or will you shoulder the entire blame?

Leaders are paid for results, not consensus. But too often they seek cover in consensus because they feel threatened, or they’ve read the wrong book. The most successful leaders do better. They involve others when the decision, not fear, implies that they should. Otherwise, they make the tough calls themselves, accepting both praise and blame for the outcomes.

How do these successful leaders know when to engage others and when to go it alone? Three options can help you decide how to decide:

1.      Act alone in these situations:

  • If you have the necessary information to make the decision.
  • If a minority will dominate the discussion and determine the outcome anyway.
  • If the information needed to make an informed decision is confidential, only those people who need to know the data should be involved in the decision-making process.

2.      Make the decision yourself after hearing input. Convene a group, actively explain the issue, and ask for opinions, but make the call yourself.

3.      Involve the group directly, and encourage them to work for consensus. This approach works the best in these situations:

  • You need to make a risky call. If you include others, you will hear and entertain more radical points of view.
  • You need multiple perspectives.
  • The individuals involved will be affected by or responsible for the consequences of the decision. When you need the understanding, cooperation, and commitment of a group, soliciting input from them will increase the likelihood that they will commit to carrying out the decision.
  • When people hold diverse or passionate attitudes about the problem and are likely to resist a solution you impose, asking them to reach their own conclusions often engenders their cooperation.

When tempted to consider consensus-making decision superior, remember some of the greatest fiascos of the twentieth century were consensus-driven: Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Vietnam War, the Watergate break-in, and the Challenger disaster, to name a few.         

Clearly, circumstances exist when a group’s decision will be the best. However, the situation, not emotion, should dictate who will make the call. When senior leaders consistently make good decisions, little else matters; when they make bad decisions, nothing else matters. Effective, often tough decisions, serve as the hinges of your destiny—yours and your organization’s.  Don’t delegate this function lightly or liberally.



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