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Sep 7, 2012

Decision-making is a contact sport

I teach a doctoral class on organizational theory, leadership and educational policy. This is my sermon to them for the next week (double-dipping here).

Here is how decisions of managers – mine and others’ – often go wrong. You get a report on an issue or a problem from someone who does not have the direct involvement with it. No one normally has the time to go and talk to the people directly involved, or to the other side of the conflict or issue. You weigh the options within the context of my horizon of the organizational knowledge. It becomes very clear which options are unacceptable and which we can live with. Because your view of usually broader (that’s the reason people came to you with the issue in the first place), you simply assume that the priorities you see outweigh whatever priorities of the parties involved in the issue. So, you ask/direct people to solve the problem in particular way, and figure out the details on how to get there. You’re done and move on to bigger and more important things. And it often goes wrong; more often than not. Why? Because it is a contactless decision.

First, the solution you see – oh, so clearly! – as a correct one, may turn out to be completely unattainable. Your particular view of the organization just does not allow seeing what could go wrong. There is simply too much context that easily escapes the view of a manager; some of it may be irrelevant, but some may be critical – you just never know. Now, asking people to perform impossible things is not a good management strategy. They will either fail or do something that makes sense to them, and won’t tell you. Either outcome is not good for a long-tern health of the organization.

Second, a fair decision must be based on hearing both (or all) sides of a story. We tend to trust people who we work with every day, and it feels weird to reach out for an alternative opinion. But the problem is not in the intentional misrepresentation. We all tend to remember and highlight facts that support our version of events, and forget or demote facts that do not. Again, time crunches tend to make this problem worse, for there is no time to look for alternative narratives. We then end up with an unfair decision. Most people will not get upset if they had a chance to state their case, and are overruled nevertheless, especially if they understand the reasons. They will inevitably get upset if given no chance to present their case.

And third, if you keep making all the decisions, you short-circuit all responsibility on yourself. As a result, you get overwhelmed with a constant stream of problems to be addressed. You train your people not to make decisions, but always defer to you. So they feel less responsible for the overall well-being of the organization. You also spread the word that none of the other people in the organization matter; unless it is you say yes or no, everything else is not important.

Decision-making is a contact sport. You need to be in touch with people who are actually involved in the issues you’re trying to solve. But because you in your position cannot be in touch with that many people, you should not make that many decisions. You should be there to listen and to mediate relationships with those above you or outside organization, but people closest to the issue should be making most of the decisions, and figuring out most of their own solutions. Only when and if they fail or ask for help you should step in. And once you delegate responsibility, you cannot constantly yank it and give it back – this discourages everyone and makes it impossible to take one’s responsibility seriously.

And the last point – just because I know this in theory does not mean I always do it. The instinct to make a quick call is very hard to suppress.

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