Decision-making: how leaders can get out of the way

At factories operating 24/7, the night shift often is more productive than the day shift. During hurricanes along the U.S. Gulf Coast, we’ve seen energy companies’ frontline workers and lower-level managers act with minimal oversight, responding with efficiency, ingenuity and speed rarely experienced during business as usual.

In these examples, management stops micromanaging, allowing subordinates to do their jobs without command-and-control supervision and bureaucratic approvals. Layers of management often can slow actions with special initiatives, unnecessary upward reporting, status updates and the like.

The military exemplifies high-performing teams that, when empowered, tend to do extremely well in decentralized models. Such emancipation doesn’t replace the strict military chain of command, but occurs within it, because good commanders know how to empower.

When Navy Captain L. David Marquet, author of “Turn that Ship Around,” took command of the USS Santa Fe, then the worst-ranking nuclear submarine, he vowed to "never give another order" except to direct the firing of a weapon. For everything else, he delegated and empowered the right people to act without approvals. Marquet concluded the approach of “take control, give orders” wouldn’t work. Consequently, the Santa Fe went from worst to first.

In organizations where competent people possess clarity of intent, maintaining control only slows decision-making and limits agility. Senior leaders should focus on what only they should do, such as setting intent, making strategic choices and removing roadblocks. Not all decisions should be delegated, but many should, as outlined in our article on untangling decision making.

What gets in the way?

Micromanaging: We see managers keeping close control, requiring every detail before answering questions and triggering reviews and upward reporting. Often from fear or ego, they compartmentalize and partially delegate while subtly encouraging escalation back up the chain.

Poor delegation: We observe managers dabbling in delegation before reverting to control. Usually, this reflects lack of clarity around direction, priorities, and strategic intent; lack of clear accountability; weak decision-makers; and a “fear” culture.

Fear of losing control: Bosses who fear loss of control and employees who fear failure often collude to undermine empowerment. Consider the manager who delegates decision-making to a subordinate who makes the right choice 10 straight times but then errs. When the manager’s boss questions that poor decision, the manager blames the subordinate, who is likely never to make another decision without the manager’s signoff. Repeated across an entire organization, that experience basically kills delegating decision-making.

Fear of failure: Companies sometimes grow so accustomed to success they begin avoiding failure. This leads to a mentality of playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Managers analyze, escalate and double check everything. Instead of coaching and empowering their staff, they favor not risking anything for fear of failure.

Micromanagement and ineffective delegation create huge costs, stifle employee creativity, pare productivity and injure an organization’s ability to move nimbly.

Organizations that do it right push intelligent decision-making to the front line by:

  • Determining what decisions to delegate and pushing them as low as possible.
  • Aligning on and communicating clarity of intent.
  • Explaining accountability and empowering people to make decisions without approval. If a decision is escalated, they determine why and push it back down, if possible.
  • Replacing the culture of fear and control with empowerment. Leaders ask their people the right questions and coach them to take control.
  • Developing the hard and soft skills for delegating well – like communicating direction, coaching and fostering servant leadership – as well as the technical competence of those they empower.

This all has implications for cultivating servant leaders. Their management style develops organizational culture and the right environment for making effective decisions.

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