When Decision Making Goes Awry


In many organizations I work with decision making is a source of major frustration.  I hear it takes so long to make a decision and then it doesn’t stick.  In others, people don’t understand what has been decided and are expected to fall in line.  Are either of these familiar to you?

If you want to understand the health of an organization, decision making is a good place to look.  In organizations with high engagement and effective leadership, decision making is a non-event.  What is it about those organizations that makes decision making much easier?  It comes down to trust.  When trust is low decision making breaks down.  Let’s take a closer look.

The impact of low trust

Consider an organization where trust is low.  Prevailing behaviors often include skepticism, suspicion, and fear.  When these are present, we aren’t willing to assume the other person is acting with good intent.  Instead, we try to figure out how they are trying to take advantage of us.  A common reaction is to fall back on consensus decision making.  This characterized by all stakeholders having a say in the decision.  Everyone needs to be in agreement to move forward.  And it gets worse.  The stakeholders have a veto they can use at anytime to stop progress and break the previous consensus.

Frustration grows at the inability of leadership to make a decision, increasing reluctance to put forward new ideas.  Raising new ideas means following a torturous decision process which isn’t worth it.  It’s better to keep your head down, and keep quiet.

Another common issue occurs when a leader decides they are going to circumvent the decision making quagmire.  They resort to dictating decisions.  While this speeds up the process of making decisions, the decisions lack commitment and rarely get executed.  Resentment builds in the organization and decisions are actively undermined.

A new approach to address decision making

So how do you resolve this?  Interestingly, it is not what most companies do.  They believe the issue lies with the decision making process.  Their response is to put in a new decision framework or process.  This typically leads to more frustration as the underlying problem is not tackled.  The real issue is trust.

Here is a simple test to figure out if trust is the problem.  Are leaders in your organization willing to trust a peer to make a decision on their behalf and go along with what they decided?  If that isn’t happening, you need to work on building trust.

How is decision making in your organization?  And is it a sign you need to build more trust?