Dr. Seth Nicholls, Director, Nicholls Consulting Services
If decision-making is the only thing over which an organisation ultimately has any control, it follows that improving the quality of those decisions is the primary means by which better organisational performance can be achieved.
Below are 5 things that managers, executives and other leaders can do to significantly improve the quality of the decisions made by their organisation.
Choose The Right Leadership Style When Making Important Decisions. In their seminal work Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee identify six different leadership styles that can be effectively employed by managers and executives to achieve specified objectives: visionary, coaching, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting and commanding.
While all of the aforementioned leadership styles are appropriate in certain circumstances, the point to be made here is that, much in the way that a professional golfer utilises the different clubs in his or her bag depending on the circumstances (and what it is that they want to achieve), so, too, should an effective manager know when to apply which leadership style when making important decisions.
For example, a commanding – rather than democratic – leadership style is far more likely to be appropriate in an emergency or crisis situation. One can only imagine the chaos and ineffectiveness that would ensue should a high ranking firefighter seek to employ a democratic decision-making style while a building is burning to the ground.
A command and control style is, however, highly unlikely to foster the kind of positivity and resonance which experts in the field of decision analysis suggest is conducive to high quality decision-making under ordinary circumstances. Indeed, Leaders in the field suggest that it is the visionary style of leadership – inspiring through vision and resonating with people’s emotions – that is conducive to organisational decision quality in most instances; with coaching, democratic, affiliative and pacesetting also having their place.
Leaders in the field of decision analysis suggest that it is the visionary style of leadership that is conducive to organisational decision quality under most circumstances. Visionary leadership is about inspiring through vision and resonating with people’s emotions.
Contribute to an Organisational Culture that Inspires Optimism, Enthusiasm, Creativity and a Desire by Staff to Perform Well. Think about the managers and leaders for/with whom you’ve worked. Which of those have inspired you to work hard, perform well and tapped into your creativity, enthusiasm and ability to solve problems? If your answer to this question is ‘those who adopted a “do it because I said so” approach’, you’re in the minority.
In terms of decision quality, an organisational culture that inspires and enthuses staff and fosters and rewards creativity is not simply an end in itself. Rather, an organisation that is characterised by optimism, enthusiasm, creativity and a desire by staff to perform well is far more likely to produce high quality decisions than one which is characterised by pessimism, mistrust and hostility. This is because:
Upbeat moods, research verifies, makes people view others-or events-in a more positive light. That in turn helps people feel more optimistic about their ability to achieve a goal, enhances creativity and decision-making skills, and predisposes people to be helpful. When people feel good, they work at their best. Feeling good lubricates mental efficiency, making people better at understanding information and using decision rules in complex judgements, as well as more flexible in their thinking (Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee 2013: 14).
Thus, wherever and whenever possible, managers should seek to promote an environment in which individuals and teams are motivated, encouraged and empowered to come up with and propose creative, innovative solutions to problems – and even experiment and take calculated risks where appropriate.
By inspiring those around you and continually reminding staff of the larger purpose of their work (and the relationship between the work they are doing – however seemingly mundane – and the larger, strategic objectives and mission of the organisation), managers create a shared sense of mission and purpose. Such an environment is much more likely to unleash creativity, clear thinking and inspire staff to perform well, solve problems and have the confidence to propose new and potentially valuable ideas.
Create a Culture of Authenticity. ‘Raise your hand’ if, at some point in your career, you have experienced or witnessed one or more of the following:
• Pressure from your organisation to come up with a particular answer, option or ‘recommendation’
• Asked to come up with ‘options’ in relation to a particular issue or problem, when you knew that those senior to you have already effectively decided upon a course of action
• Presented ‘options’ to senior management and realised that the decision has been made long before you got to the meeting
• Known what is going on ‘at the coalface’ and watched uninformed, out of touch superiors make terrible decisions
Exactly – you can put your hand down.
Chances are, the broader organisational environment in which you experienced one or more of the above was characterised by a lack of authenticity. Conversely, a culture of authenticity can be described as an organisational environment which is characterised by a culture of openness and truthfulness. In a practical sense, this means an environment in which openness and truthfulness are the norm, candor is valued (and rewarded) and staff are encouraged to appropriately and respectfully speak ‘truth to power’.
Why is the creation of an organisational environment in which openness and truthfulness are the norm, candor is valued and rewarded and staff are encouraged to appropriately and respectfully speak ‘truth to power’ so important for organisational decision quality?
The answer is that the acquisition of meaningful, relevant and reliable information is one of the key foundations on which good decision-making is based and an indispensable ingredient for managers and executives who are seeking to make high quality decisions.
This is because the quality of any decision is only as high as the quality and accuracy of the information on which it is based. This is particularly important for big picture strategic and policy decisions; the consequences of which can be far reaching, costly and difficult to reverse.
The quality of any decision is only as high as the quality and accuracy of the information on which it is based. This is particularly important for big picture strategic and policy decisions; the consequences of which can be far reaching, costly and difficult to reverse.
The problem, however, is that while importance of the decisions made by managers and executives increases with promotion, so, too, does the propensity for staff to ‘sugar coat’ – or even outright distort – information provided to senior managers due to a fear of the wrath of those who hold power. Unsurprisingly, this can have disastrous implications for the quality of the decisions made by an organisation.
Indeed, in so far as meaningful, relevant and reliable information provide the foundation for high quality decisions, leaders must actively seek to promote a culture of openness, truth-telling, and transparency within their organisation. In a practical sense, this means actively seeking to drive fear out of an organisation and creating a safe environment for staff to speak up and provide managers with what they need to know.
Adopt a Dialogue-Based Approach to Decision-Making. In many organisations, decisions of significant importance are often made via a process of advocacy and approval. Generally speaking, this approach to decision-making within organisations is characterised by something akin to the following:
- An issue or ‘problem’ is identified by management
- Subordinates are asked to make a recommendation (and defend it!)
- Management approves (‘Yes, let’s do it’) or rejects the ‘solution’ being advocated (‘We need a better idea, get back to work’)
While organisational decision-making processes based on advocacy and approval may be appropriate under certain circumstances, they are not necessarily conducive to high quality decision-making. This is because the recommendations which are made are often the result of the biases of the individual or team making the recommendation. This can result in, among other things, ‘framing errors’ (e.g. solving the wrong problem’), the consideration of a limited range of alternatives only and/or decisions which are based on poor quality information.
An alternative approach is a dialogue-based approach to decision-making. Unlike traditional approaches, organisational decision-making approaches based on dialogue are predicated on the idea of working cooperatively with one another, as a team, to find the best possible solution to the problem under consideration – not simply that which is advocated by a particular individual or group.
For many managers and executives, this requires a conceptual shift from an ‘advocacy’ to a ‘dialogue-based’ mindset. Whereas the former is based on the idea of subordinates ‘winning approval’ for a particular decision or course of action, the latter is based on finding the best possible solution to a given problem and making a high quality decision.
Model the Right Behaviour. If you are a manager, executive or other leader, you are being watched – constantly. Individuals within your organisation – particularly your staff – are consciously and unconsciously watching you for cues in relation to how to act. And the more senior you are, the stronger the symbolic messages you are sending.
Modelling the right (or wrong) behaviour, can have profound implications for organisational decision quality. For example, the manager who extols the virtues of openness, honesty and truth-telling (in order to ensure that important decisions are based on a high quality foundation of information – discussed above) while modelling precisely the opposite cannot seriously expect to elicit honesty from his or her staff (any more than a parent can expect their children to do what they say, rather than what they do – see cartoon below).
Conversely, the executive who habitually tells the truth and admits their mistakes is far more likely to evoke such behaviour from his or her staff. This is because, for better or worse, it is the behaviour of leaders which sets the tone for the entire organisation.
Making it Happen
As a leader, you are disproportionately empowered to achieve better results for your organisation by improving the quality of its decisions. By adopting the right leadership style, inspiring optimism, enthusiasm and creativity in your staff, promoting authenticity and cooperation and modelling the right behaviour, you can begin to actively create the conditions from within which better decisions can be made.