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The Indecisive Leader: Making a decision without making a decision

I, along with many others, have written numerous blog posts about leadership and management qualities. I have spent a lot of time identifying necessary qualities and traits that successful leaders and managers exhibit or must have. I tend to put things like ethical behaviour, good communication skills and the ability to coach and develop people near the top of every “good to have” list. Likewise, things like lying, cheating, stealing, irrationality, poor communication, etc. will automatically make it to the “bad list.” Here is the thing that I have come to realize though, regardless of the formula that makes for a successful leader or manager, there is one quality that if possessed by the individual in the leadership position, will disrupt the entire formula. That quality is indecisiveness.

imageIndecisiveness can be particularly damaging depending on where the leader’s position is in the overall organizational ‘chart’ and depending on what type of operational environment they are tasked with leading within. In other words, a Plant Manager, at an automotive manufacturing facility, who can’t make a decision, will have a far greater (immediate) negative impact on the organization than an Office Manager for an accounting firm. Longer term, the net effects are basically the same – leadership that cannot (will not) make a decision stunts departmental/organizational growth, causes missed opportunities and adds a level of cultural frustration that drives employee turnover and disengagement with the work at hand.

I have spoken with and counselled hundreds (thousands?) of employees and managers during my career and I can’ tell you how often the phrase, “I just wish he/she would make a decision.” is uttered. The decision they are waiting for could be for just about anything:

· A policy interpretation

· A request to address an employee relations related issue

· A vacation request

· A salary increase

⋅A promotional opportunity/internal transfer

· A request to move on to a different project team

· A bid proposal

· A new market penetration opportunity, etc.

You get the point – the issue is that the leader, by waiting, deferring and not providing an answer (decision) has, in fact, made a decision,. The worst reality for all is that no decision is, in fact, a decision. I have seen this approach used time and time again – the leader or manager that is unwilling to make a decision without multiple inputs, opinions or even one that simply wants to mitigate all risk, often (willingly) allow circumstances to overtake the decision process. That is, the decision is made due to the element of time. Time and circumstances have caught up and there is no longer a decision to be made as the opportunity in question is now lost, or the employee has resigned, or something has else occurred in the organization that has now rendered the previously required decision as moot.

Far too many leaders operate this way and thereby create created the unintended effect of organizational paralysis. Decision requests go into the vortex, never to be responded to. Here is the thing, leadership indecisiveness is organizationally debilitating. It results in your employees losing confidence in you as their leader. In fact, it results in you being seen as a complete roadblock or impediment to their success. After a while, your employees will move on – to another leader, department or organization if, as a leader, you wallow in your own indecisiveness.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. As leaders, you need to know what your role/organizational constraints are and then apply that against the impact of the decision required. Another little secret – employees don’t always expect you to answer yes or give them whatever it is they are asking for. Sometimes a decisive, but respectful ‘no’ along with a brief explanation can work just as well. Trust me; your staff will respect you more for making a decision! If you do need more time/information before you can make your decision, because there are other organizational impacts the employee may not be aware of, than tell them that. Tell them that you need more time and info but then commit to getting back to them by a specific date. Your employees will respect that too!

So leaders, you need to be aware of the impact of not making decisions. You are in a leadership role for a reason – to be able to make (the tough) decisions. It is not ok to defer, deflect or abdicate your decision-making responsibilities to anyone else – including time. If you are not comfortable with your decision making abilities, than you need some coaching help from your manager and/or your local HR person. However, at the end of the day, you are responsible and you are accountable – to your team, to your company and to yourself.

What about you? Have you worked for an indecisive leader? How did that impact you in your role? If you are a leader, do you see the importance that decision-making has on establishing your credibility as a leader? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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