Tough Decisions and Operational Paralysis

A primary part of a manager’s job involves making decisions.  A manager serves as the central resource for making decisions on expectations, who to hire, allocation of work assignments, response to customer issues, and many other facets of operating a work unit.  With the variety and volume of decisions in an average workday, some managers find it easier to stall or not make decisions.  Some decisions require reflection or data collection, but a tempting trap involves “over thinking” a situation or abdicating responsibility.

For example, I recently met with an organization to discuss their current operations.  The unit seemed to be stuck at a lower than desired level of performance.  During the first session, a few employees discussed how their supervisor would come to them when he had to make decisions for more than advice.  He would present the situation and then ask what the employee what he or she thought he should do.  The concerned employees indicated that at first being involved in decision-making seemed very positive even enlightened.  However, with time, the employees realized that the supervisor relied on them almost exclusively and refused to make a decision on his own.  Quickly, something viewed as positive became something despised by employees.  Employees started going around asking each other “what do you think we should do?” as a joke at the expense of the manager.

In the same organization, I met with a manager that monopolized control to the extent that every decision in his team went through him.  Things as simple as office supplies, brand of office coffee, and lunch hours came from the dictates of the manager.   If an employee deviated from the standard decision-making process, the manager’s anger engulfed the entire office.  Employees lived in a state of fear over deciding anything and exercised little, if any autonomy.  Moreover, the manager, no matter how much he tried could not handle the volume of decisions that he desired to control and constantly left important decisions undecided.  Not surprisingly, employees referred to the manager as “the dictator” and spent a considerable amount of time complaining about the misery present in the workplace.

Ironically, both approaches led to the same outcome: operational paralysis.

Clearly, involving employees in decision-making creates a positive work environment when coupled with good leadership.  Most climate, satisfaction, or engagement surveys ask about the degree to which employees influence decision-making with the assumption that involvement increases happiness and productivity.  However, like many things, the extremes present a dangerous situation.  Too little involvement in decision-making creates an environment of over control while too much erodes confidence in the manager and overall organization.

As human resource leaders, how do we encourage managers to find the appropriate balance?

  • encourage joint decision-making models, but make clear that the manager is the responsible party;
  • provide effective decision-making training to all levels of the organization;
  • ensure the appropriate level of subject matter knowledge for all levels;
  • set expectations that not all employee suggestions become reality; and
  • implement a culture that supports those that take calculated risks.
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