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Management & Managers:  Engagement & decision-making.

“People support what they help create” so said Mary Kay, a women who put lots of other women into pink Cadillacs.  When I read her book twenty years ago I was impressed by the pure common sense of her ideas but that one phrase has always stuck in my head.

It is an axiom that a small group of people acting in concert is smarter than the sum of it’s members.  Conversely any group of people not acting in concert can be extraordinarily stupid.  One challenge for managers is how to enhance the former and eliminate the latter.  The key to this is to have a full repertory of decision- making styles and to be able to use each appropriately.

Analyzing your own decision making style is key to the growth and development of the effective manager.  In general we can characterize the types of decision making as being on the following continuum:


Authoritarian is the "old" American style:  one way, the right way, my way.  It has the advantage of being very fast but at the cost of limiting and usually eliminating any input from others into the decision.  This type of decision-making is sometimes perceived by employees as capricious and often upsets them.  Authoritarian decision-making is most appropriate in emergency or crisis situations where the chain of command is clear, roles are well defined and understood and people are well trained.  An example is a group of firefighters at a fire scene or a squad of soldiers in combat.

Authoritative decision-making is a softened version of authoritarian.  Many effective managers have a primarily authoritative style.  They retain control of the decision but explain how and why they made it.  Actually, this means using decision-making as a method to communicate the "why" of issues to employees and this approach is usually respected by employees.  Almost all formal teaching and learning situations are authoritative.  The instructor defines the topic, content, process and leads the class or seminar.  This type of decision-making style requires excellent communication skills and when used respectfully is a powerful tool.

Consensual is the Japanese way:  Let's talk about this until we all agree and then do it.  This method maximizes input but it can be terribly slow to reach consensus.  It also has another major disadvantage that is related to culture.  Japan is a culture where seeking consensus in trained into people.  This is not the case in American culture.  Often in Americans, who value individuality above all, real consensus is exceedingly difficult to obtain.  In practice, Americans will finally agree, but may then go out and do what they please regardless of the decision.  The best example of a consensual decision process in American culture is the jury; juries are often slow and make very conservative decisions.  Also, when the decision is difficult juries tend to "hang-up" and produce no decision.  To work in our culture consensual decision-making requires a powerful shared purpose and very group process skilled participants.  Perhaps the strongest argument against this type of decision is that diffusion of responsibility in groups can unwittingly encourage “group think” and lead to foolish or unethical decisions.

What is needed for effective people engagement is a combination of the best aspects of the two opposite styles.  Consultative decision making is a process that encourages input, can be accomplished in a timely fashion and maintains a clear executive function.  From the employee – supervisor - manager perspective it is simply stated:  Ask me before you decide.  Use your people as consultants in the decision process.  Many have ideas about how to do it better, but you must ask them.  Consultative decision- making maintains the executive function (i.e. "The buck stops here") and at the same time solicits input.  Please remember people support what they help create.  Encouraging input gives people some ownership of the decision by making them participants in the process.  This is a style of management where you do things with people, not to them.

It should be noted that many managers use a version of consultative management that appears progressive in practice but is perverse in effect.  This is soliciting input from employees and then habitually disregarding the information.  Employees manage to figure out rather rapidly what is happening and the effects are trust busting.  It is more honest and effective to practice direct authoritative decision-making than to ask for input and then always disregard it, creating the fiction, but not the fact, of employee involvement.  I have seen many managers inadvertently stumble into this mistake and its effects are negative because employees’ perceive they are being manipulated.

Consultative decision-making also requires a more people-skilled manager.  If you create a work climate where people will actively participate, much of what you learn you will not want to hear, although you need to hear it.  It takes a very skilled person not to become defensive and overreact to what they might perceive as attacks on their good works.  Such management also requires more time.  However, the commitment that it builds in employees is demonstrated in improved productivity, an increased capacity to deal with change and a much more positive organizational climate.

The challenge of being an effective manager is not just having all these decision-making styles in your repertory by knowing when and how to use them.  Clearly there are situations where each of these styles is most appropriate and will produce the best results.  The question I ask myself is "Do I have the appropriate people involved in the decision?"  Some decisions require no input or commitment whereas other decisions are critically dependent on input and involvement.  When next you make a decision, at home or at work, use this criterion to suggest the most effective style. 



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