Thursday, May 7, 2009

Leadership Decisions

Decision making is never a burden when leaders share the load. 

Leadership decisions can be made in many ways. Often, the situation determines which type of method a leader uses to make a decision. Some ways include:

Decide and announce: the leader does all the work, makes the complete decision, and hopes that everyone follows. This method is useful in a crisis (like a fire fighter captain at a fully involved blaze) and less useful in other situations (for example, picking an organizational strategy for next year).

Consult and then decide: the leader talks to key people, gather information, and makes the decision. Sometimes that decision is close to what others have recommended, and sometimes it isn't. This method is useful when the decision is complicated and technical in an area where the leader has authority but not all of the expertise. The method fails if the leader consults the wrong people or disregards all advice without ever explaining the rationale for the final decision.

Vote: the leader proposes some choices and the constituents vote on which decision to implement. This can be effective if you want to reach a very large and geographically disbursed constituency -- say, for instance a general election. It is less effective with small teams because elections produce winners and losers -- and the losers don't tend to support the winners.

Collaborate to reach consensus: the leader meets with the key constituents and provides guidelines for the issue. Often an independent facilitator is brought in to conduct the session. The group agrees to support the final decision whether or not they all agree that it is the best solution. This agreement is critical to the success of a consensus decision. This method is highly effective for building teams and for reaching large decisions that require the support and involvement of most people. The challenges to consensus are that it takes time and must be skillfully facilitated to avoid a false election atmosphere or executive fiat decisions when the process bogs down.

Which decision process should leaders use? The classic answer is that it always depends on the situation. My recommendation is to use as much involvement of your people as time and resources allow. Not only will you make a higher quality decision, but you won't have to sell something that people have decided on themselves.

Are you including your people in your decisions?

-- Douglas Brent Smith

Learn more in the workshop:  Supervising for Success


  1. I wish there was a bigger difference between "Vote" and "Collaborate to reach consensus." I think in both cases, there can be a tendency to create winners/losers.

    In my experience, the most important factor in achieving successful collaboration is FIRST getting agreement on the problem -- what is it?

    Too often we are too quick to jump to solutions, before everyone has agreed that there is a problem. Unfortunately, our expediency creates the classic set-up that incubates winners/losers as you described.

    Good thought provoking post.

  2. Your comment is so accurate. It's so important for a leader to make the process clear. I've seen many groups gravitate to voting when they get frustrated with taking longer than usual to make a decision. Often, that's more reason NOT to vote, because there is still so much to talk about.

    The time spent reaching a true consensus decision saves much more time later in trying to recover the losses that come from trying to re-enlist people who have checked-out because they felt defeated in the decision process.

    - Doug Smith