Last week, my colleague Leigh wrote a blog on decision making. Specifically, on the difficulty in making decisions when there is clearly no “right” option. In this blog, I want to talk about the AFTERMATH of that agonizing decision process. You’ve consulted, you’ve agonized, and you’ve decided. And this is what CEOs often tell me, “Recently, I needed to make a decision that was not only difficult but critical. I talked to several stakeholders, listened to their perspectives, and considered several options with my team. There was no clear “right” answer, no consensus, and pros and cons to each option. It finally came to me to make the call. What irked me was after the fact, one of my team members complained that I didn’t listen to him/her perspective at all. But I did listen! I just didn’t agree with what he/she thought!”
And, this is what team members sometimes say, “My leader is really great, but when it comes to critical decisions, he/she never really listens to points of view he/she does not agree with. I told him/her what I thought, but he/she didn’t even listen to what I said or the business case for it.”
While I don’t always talk to the actual parties who supposedly had this conversation, I have talked with individuals on BOTH sides of this situation. And this is what I know:
Most CEOs believe they use a “valid” process of decision-making and do listen to multiple perspectives. They believe they have the following skills sets that support this:
- the ability to look at facts
- awareness of underlying assumptions and biases
- consideration of the context, hear differing perspectives (even if you don’t agree with them)
- the ability to evaluate several options, and
- the critical reasoning needed to choose the “best” (not right) option utilizing one’s intuition
Yet, the direct reports and stakeholders of these same CEO’s claim otherwise. What gives?
Here are several possibilities:
- The CEO has not had dialogs with key stakeholders about their decision-making processes, styles, or expectations. They may not have articulated how styles and process may change, depending on urgency, breadth or criticality of decisions, cost-benefit analysis, risks, etc. The CEO may understand intuitively, and decide flexibly, about their decisions, but without clear articulation, expectations of others may be wildly different. And when expectations are not met, frustration often follows.
- The CEO has not learned how to verbally “validate” what was heard, to feed back the perspective and the business case that was stated without agreeing or disagreeing. In other words, the CEO may have nodded his/her head but NOT said out loud what he/she heard.
- Stakeholders may have expectations about the kind of decision-making style the CEO “ought” to use and is resentful when anything other than that style was used.
- Stakeholders may rigidly believe (and will unlikely be consciously aware of this) that the “right” decision was the one they stood for. There is only one right answer and if the CEO did not make it, it was clearly because he/she didn’t listen to reason.
I could go on an on, but the point is, when a CEO hears this feedback, he/she must take a good look at their decision-making processes and reflect on the decision-making norms that are consciously or unintentionally operating. And team members need to take a good look at their own expectations, and their ability to understand the ambiguity involved in making difficult decisions. General Colin Powell sums up his decision-making process in this way:
“I encourage all my subordinates to feel free to argue with me. My guidance was simple ‘Disagree with me, do with feeling, try to convince me you are right, and I am about to go down the wrong path. You owe that to me. A moment will come when I have heard enough, and I will make a decision. At that instant, I expect all of you to execute that decision as if it were your idea. Don’t damn the decision with faint praise, don’t mumble under your breath—we now move forward together. Don’t argue with me anymore unless you have new information, or I realize I goofed and come back to you. Loyalty is disagreeing strongly, and loyalty is executing faithfully. Decision-making is about gathering all the information, analyzing it, and trying to get the right answer. I still love you, so get mad and get over it.’ ”
This is a favorite leadership quote of mine. If this fits for you, it may help to articulate your process.
Let me know what you think!