“I’m so frustrated!” exclaimed the person I was speaking with. “I can’t believe I even bothered to say anything at the meeting. They already knew what decision they were going to make. They just held the meeting to pretend they cared about what we had to say!”
Unfortunately, I’ve heard this sentiment many times throughout my experiences as an organizational consultant. In this case I was working with a team of about 40 people who were contemplating a significant structural change in the workflow of their department. The leadership team had held a meeting to consult the staff about what they wanted. However, after the meeting, it appeared to staff that the leadership team had already made a decision, and the “consultation” process was just designed to make staff think they had a voice. They felt as though their time had been wasted, and even worse, that the leadership team didn’t really care what they had to say.
All leaders should strive to create clarity around making decisions. When leaders are not clear about the decision-making process for an issue, including who is making the decision and how, they risk creating conflict or disengaging staff. When it comes to decisions, people care deeply about transparency – they need to know what process is being used and want their expertise or opinions to be valued.
Transparency in decision-making processes directly influences our willingness to trust the results.
Transparency in decision-making processes directly influences our willingness to trust the results. Consider the lengths governments go to in order to ensure transparency in an election process. They try to create transparency so that the citizens trust the results. If they are not transparent people quickly become distrustful. By the same token, leaders should be working to create transparency about the decisions that get made in their organizations if they want their staff to trust the decisions that affect them.
Transparency can include any number of factors, including information about who is making the decision, what data is being considered, and what process is being used. I have learned that when I make the effort to communicate as much information as I can, it puts employees’ fears at ease, and they will more easily support a decision. Sometimes I’m reminded of this the hard way. Recently, a colleague and I decided to engage an external technology consultant to help us create better infrastructure. Initially, we decided to work with the consultant without discussing it with our tech team, and predictably, our decision was met with some fear and resistance. I took that as a cue to slow down, listen to the fears of my team, discuss my hopes and thinking for working with the consultant, and then bring the team alongside us as we re-engaged with the consultant. The result has been a much happier team.
Further to transparency, people also need to understand how the decision is being made so that they know how to engage in the process. If a decision is being made by an individual or small committee without consultation, staff will know they don’t have to think about it or contribute. If a decision is being made by an individual or small committee after consultation with a wider group, staff will know they need to prepare and that their voice will be heard. And if the decision is going to be made by the wider group by voting or consensus decision-making, then staff will know that they should be prepared to invest even more in the process. Whatever the case may be, leaders should always create clear expectations about whether staff are being given information about a decision that has already been made, are being consulted prior to a decision, or if they are being asked to make a decision together.
All leaders should strive to create clarity around making decisions.
In addition to being clear about what process they’re using to make the decision, leaders may also find it valuable to say why that process is being used. I have found it helpful to follow a few simple rules when it comes to choosing a process. First, if the ultimate responsibility for a decision rests with an individual or small group, then they should fully own the decision and not give it to others to make, even if it is tempting to pass the responsibility. Second, if the decision affects other people, the decision-maker should strongly consider consulting the wider group who will be impacted by the decision. The bigger the impact on the group, the higher the rationale for consulting. And three, if a decision is either the responsibility of the whole group or wide buy-in is needed, the leader should consider using a group process such as voting or consensus decision-making.
It creates intense frustration for people when they are asked for their opinion or to provide information, only to find out or suspect that what they contributed was not actually considered in the final decision. When decision-makers consult others, they must be prepared to take into account what they hear. This does not mean that they need to agree with every voice in the consultation process but that they must value it. After a decision is made, the decision-maker needs to communicate the result of the decision, what they considered, and, if possible, why they went with the option they chose. This gives those who were involved in consultation a sense of closure, and it communicates that their input was valued. I have seen that most people will go along with a decision without significant complaint, as long as what they contributed was considered.
I have guided many groups through decision-making processes over the years. Through my experiences, I have learned that the best decision-making involves transparency, clear process, and valuing what people contribute during consultation. When people believe the process is transparent, clear, and that they were listened to, they are more likely to trust the results. And trust make it possible to proceed with the outcome of the decision and do the work.
This is an excerpt from ACHIEVE’s upcoming book, Don’t Blame the Lettuce: 52 Insights to Help You Grow as a Leader. The book will be released in 2022.
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