August 2, 2010

The best reason to involve others in decisions is a simple one: buy in. A line in a classic management book, “Getting to Yes,” says it well:

“Give them a stake in the outcome by making sure they participate in the process.”

Makes sense. I believe in it. More often than not it’s the best way to go. But it’s not the only way. Every decision is different. Even bosses who pride themselves on inclusiveness and employee empowerment need to know when it’s time to go it alone.

Let’s look at the boss’s decision-making options:

  • Command: I decide.
  • Delegated: I decide who decides.
  • Consultative: I ask for input, then I decide.
  • Democratic: I put it to a team vote. Majority rules.
  • Consensus: The team and I choose an option that everyone can live with, even if some aren’t crazy about it.

The trick for the person at the top is knowing which style is best for which situation. Psychologist Daniel Levi, in his book “Group Dynamics for Teams,” reports:

“In general, decision-making techniques that include group discussion and participation lead to higher quality decisions; this is especially true if the problems are complex or unstructured, or if leaders do not have enough information to make good decisions.”

But we know from experience that group decisions — both democratic and consensus — can have drawbacks as well.

  • The process can be time-consuming and delay a decision.
  • The process can distract people from other work. (Can you say “death by meetings?”)
  • The participants may bring more opinion and bias than expertise to the table.
  • The information involved is sensitive; confidentiality might be compromised.

In the face of those challenges, the leader might opt for taking more control of the final decision by using the consultative or command options. The consultative — asking the counsel of others — can be both speedy and effective when it’s done well. The command option — going it totally alone — should be handled with care.

Here are some questions bosses should ask themselves when deciding whether to bypass the group decision-making process:

  • How important is this decision — high-stakes, high-risk, highly sensitive, short window of opportunity?
  • Do I have the expertise and information to make this decision alone?
  • If I ask colleagues for input, how will I make clear that their role is advisory only?
  • How will I inform people of my decision and how I got there?
  • How will I manage any negative fallout from those who must implement it but felt excluded from the process?

That last one is really important. When you know you’ve taken the command approach for good reason, you don’t need to be defensive, but you do need to be proactive. Anticipate the anxiety or disappointment it might initially cause, especially among your deputies who are accustomed being involved and in charge.

You’ll need them to deliver the message about your decision to other staffers in a positive way, even though they may not have had a voice or a vote in it. How you communicate with them will set the tone for how they spread the word to others.

There’s one more question you should ask yourself before making that “executive decision”, and it has to do with your management style. I’ll share it in today’s podcast: “What Great Bosses Know about Decision-Making.”

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. You can download a complete series of these podcasts free on iTunes U. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
Jill Geisler

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