Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Decision Making Continuum

In your role as manager, one of the quickest ways to cause confusion within a group, team, or organization is to make assignments or establish goals without being clear on how decisions related to that assignment or goal will be made.  If you have a team that is high performing, filled with enthusiasm, and hard-charging, you can change all of that by pulling the decision-making-rug out from under them just when they think they have the project under control.

To avoid this problem, as you work with others make it a point to get clear up front on how decisions related to the task at hand will be made.

Here are a few tips for getting clear on which decision making style might be appropriate for a given situation:

  • Now Hear This
    • Manager Role: The final decision has been made.  Provide Information. Facilitate limited discussion.
    • Team Member Role: Ask for clarification as required.  Limited input.
  • Trial Balloon
    • Manager Role: Discuss tentative decision that has already been made.  Ask for reactions and suggestions.  Make final decision. (The decision may change based on the discussion.)
    • Team Member Role:  Provide reaction and suggestions.
  • The Buck Stops Here
    • Manager Role:  The final decision has not been made.  Present the issue.  Ask for ideas and suggestions.  Make final decision.
    • Team Member Role:  Provide ideas, suggestions, and alternative solutions.
  • Coach
    • Manager Role:  Ask the team to help create a decision.  Present the issue.  Define resolution boundaries.  Facilitate problem solving and/or analysis session with the team.  Approve final decision resulting from the discussion.
    • Team Member Role:  Participate in problem solving and/or analysis session with the team.  Generate recommended solutions as a group.
  • You Tell Me
    • Manager Role:  Present the issue.  Define resolution boundaries. Approve the final decision as long as it fits the defined boundaries.
    • Team Member Role:  Participate in team-facilitated problem solving and/or analysis session.  Team generates recommended solution and course of action.
As you move from "You Tell Me" to "Now Hear This" in the decision making model, employee involvement is reduced, and manager involvement is increased.

You might note that there is no case where the employee or manager is totally absolved of responsibility in making the decision.  In "You Tell Me" the manager is still expected to establish boundaries and approve the final decision, although that decision may be more ceremonial in nature.  In "Now Hear This" the employee retains the obligation to ask clarifying questions and understand the decisions that are being made.

Establishing the decision making style early will help avoid problems later.  Also, maximum empowerment will be found in groups that know how decisions will be made.  A quick way to kill the feeling of empowerment is to change decision making styles midstream, shifting to a more manager-controlled style.


Please note, this material is based on the work Gary Winters did with my organization in the early to middle 1990s.  Gary and Eric Klein have since gone on to author a book called To Do or Not To Do - How Successful Leaders Make Better Decisions, published in 2005.  I have not read the book, but I do know Gary Winters.  And, knowing him, I can assure you that you will find a complete and understandable discussion of decision making therein.  You may also want to check out Gary Winters' blog, The Leadership Almanac, at