Leading and Leveraging Talent

Can collaboration in decision making go too far?

Todd Ordal

Most enlightened leaders understand that talented people won’t work in environments where their every move is choreographed and their decisions are second-guessed. They also know that with every pair of hands they hire, a brain usually comes along and they can leverage their team members’ intelligence and skills to go further than they could alone. This is, in essence, the definition of leadership. It’s rare that I run into old bombastic, command-and-control style leaders who want to make all the decisions themselves and put little trust in their team.

There is, however, a great difference between pure democracy (i.e., everybody votes on everything) and representative democracy. If you read about the founding of our country, you’ll see the founders’ brilliance in crafting our democratic system. One thing they wanted to avoid was the “tyranny of the majority.” Sometimes, in the passion of the moment, people tend to make irrational, knee-jerk decisions that come back to haunt them (i.e., trying to solve a problem but not anticipating the unintended consequences).

Sometimes as a leader, you need to make the hard call on your own. As Colin Powell said about leadership, “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”

It’s very difficult to draw a bright line between effective collaboration on one hand (e.g., involving lots of people in the decision) versus making the tough call as an individual leader on the other. Yale business professor Victor Vroom has written on decision-making styles if you’re interested. I’m collapsing a few for brevity’s sake.

There are basically three options for you as a leader:

  1. The leader acts alone. This is the fastest way to make a decision, so it has a significant advantage. To do this effectively, you, as leader, must ask yourself, “Do I have all the information necessary to make the decision?” (You must take care that you’re not just breathing your own exhaust here!) The second question you must ask yourself is, “Will people accept this?” If your people won’t accept your decisions, you’re in trouble!

If you run a large organization, you clearly cannot know as much about most issues as some of your content or functional experts, so you’d likely use this style only for critical, time-sensitive, strategic decisions where you have a clear line of sight. One final point on the utility of this style: Sometimes, a decision might inflict so much pain that the group cannot come to a good verdict. As a leader, you might have to reserve this decision for yourself (e.g., layoffs or an unpopular organizational change).

  1. The leader works with his followers as a group but retains decision making for himself or herself. Much of what I described in the first style applies here, but the leader requires additional information to make the decision. The quintessential picture of this is the president of the United States meeting with his top advisers about a vexing military issue and then making the tough call. Think JFK and the Cuban missile crisis.
  1. The leader works with group members and allows them to make the decision. This has the advantage of potentially building strong commitment and alignment IF facilitated correctly. Additional considerations here are:
    1. The team must have a common goal/objective (not necessarily the “how,” but the “what”). Without a common goal, you’ll get some NHL type arguments.
    2. As a leader, you don’t need to have all the information for the decision to be made.
    3. The team must be knowledgeable about the issue being decided. A decision without knowledge is malpractice. If you want team member input and know they’re deficient in details, give them some homework before you meet so you can have a fact-based conversation rather than opinions.
    4. You must make adequate time for interaction and let people engage in a healthy debate.
    5. Once a decision is made, the team must be supportive. Don’t allow backroom dissenters to nod their head in the meeting and then blast the decision after the fact.

There’s a fourth option, which only a fool uses frequently: You allow group members to make the decision and then overrule them.

As you can see, in the first two styles, the leader makes the decision. Only in the third option does the group make the decision.

It may seem a bit pedantic to break down decision making to this granular level, but my experience is that if you don’t think about how you’ll make decisions, consciously put in place mechanisms to support this and be very transparent about how you’ll handle different kinds of questions, you’ll frustrate people and end up with bad decisions.

There’s no “one right way” as to which of the three styles to use for all circumstances. If you read about leadership, you’ll find many sources that identify the benefits of inclusion, building commitment (rather than just compliance) and the quality of decision making when involving more voices with different perspectives. My observation is that after working with many companies, most CEOs would be better served by working more diligently on how to leverage the talent of the team, using Option 2 or 3.

Occasionally, however, a very difficult decision must be made. CEOs are ultimately accountable for results. Sometimes this means that you have to make some hard choices that piss people off. Get over it. Leadership comes with obligations.

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