The Decision-Making Pendulum

One of the struggles organizations face is getting lost in the decision-making process. Many leaders either use a lot of authority or seek consensus. More often than not, they stick to one decision-making style for everything. Conflicts happen, hearts get broken, frustrations come from every direction, resulting in resignations. The inflexibility in decision-making is at the root of various problems.

When I wrote about having a bias for action, I talked about different sizes of decisions. I specifically didn't say anything about the effective decision-making process. Creating a bias towards action requires having a flexible but solid decision-making process. Especially leader's pendulum between going with action vs. contemplation demands to have different decision-making styles.

In our conversation with David Marquet, he mentioned that authority is detrimental to everyone; leader, employees, and the organization. When leaders give commands in every decision, they include themselves everywhere while preventing others from growing. When they are involved in everything, they become blockers. The amount of authority and hierarchy affect the timeline of the projects. Therefore, it's not sustainable for anyone.

On the other hand, there is consensus decision-making: convincing everyone and agreeing together. When the leaders use consensus in decisions, the processes take a long time. Getting an "I agree" message from everyone is not easy to do and, again, affects the timeline of the projects.

Now, you might say, "Well, we are left with just giving advice and consent decision-making." Consent decision-making means not having any objections. Instead of getting an "I agree" message from everyone, you propose and look for qualifying objections. "Disagree and commit" is part of this style. The goal is reaching "good enough" or "safe to try" decisions. This style looks more promising and suitable for many situations. However, the more robust strategy is that having the flexibility to use all of the above together.

The Decision-Making Pendulum

There is no one way to make decisions; it's a pendulum. On one side, we have the authority, and on the other side, we have the consensus. This pendulum requires leaders to go back and forth. Having flexibility in decision-making is crucial and more persuasive than sticking to only one.

The Decision-Making Pendulum with four balls. From left-to-right authority, advice, consent, and consensus.
The Decision-Making Pendulum

Organizations get stuck in convincing everyone or using the authority in the wrong place. The problem is trying to use the same decision-making style in all situations. Why people stick to one style depends on the personality and the background of the people.

Each person's style is different. How they want to approach decisions is impacted by their cultural background and their previous work environments. If they have a consensual history, they want to have more consensus than authority. If they have a top-down background, they want to use the power in many decisions. Multicultural teams need to focus on these fundamental differences.

When the team uses the decision style that a person is not accustomed to, the individual feels uncomfortable and usually gets annoyed by how the group approaches the work. If we ask why they respond that way, the answer probably will be, "we're going too fast." The response might be valid and indicate a correct observation. However, it's not them who cannot understand the approach. It's the leader who makes a mistake. It's the leader who fails in communication. It's the leader who mixes up speed and correct action.

Speed vs. Action

Especially after the millennium, the business landscape changes by the day. Many things focus on being first on the market, acting fast, and learning quickly. This race is both practical and detrimental. The leaders usually let themselves get carried away by this flow. And these leaders make a mistake.

Always focusing on the outcome and speed might be necessary for the business KPIs; however, the best result comes from balance, clarity, and action.

The balance comes from choosing the right decision-making style in the correct place. Defaulting to any style creates unhappiness and bad results. Leaders should change their decision-making method from authority to advice, advice to consent, consensus to authority, and consent to consensus, and vice versa in different situations.

The key is identifying when to use which and communicating upfront. Using authority and giving commands won't be sustainable when people expect to make a decision together. Using consensus will make everything slower when people want to stop discussing and move to the action.

Choosing the most suitable method comes with experience, having empathy, reading the air, and understanding the circumstances. Once the leader identifies the style for that situation, the next step is having clarity.

The Clarity for The Win

When the group gets bigger, everyone needs more clarity in each step. Having transparency and certainty at all stages will ease the frustration and help acting faster instead of talking aimlessly. The leaders should explain which decision-making style the group will use in advance and communicate decisions afterward.

When the team knows the decision style in advance, they act accordingly. However, the crucial thing is that explaining why a specific decision-making style is preferred. Without explaining the reasons, the discussions will never end. Once everyone understands the reasoning behind it, many of them will onboard.

Bringing clarity after making the final decision and communicating it is essential. Not all decisions will include everyone who will be affected by it. However, the communication style has to be separated from the decision style. It's not necessary to announce the decision using authority when you decide with authority. Most often, the communication is not a broadcast but a conversation.

Of course, there will be objections to the decisions regardless of the style. Validating objections and acting on them (or not) is the last step. The leaders need to have a bias toward action while keeping the authority at the minimum; instead of always discussing, they have to create an environment that inclines toward action while retaining the contemplation, handling objections, and discussions at a healthy level.

The flexibility in the decision-making style brings success and creates a healthy environment that moves while everyone has a voice that can elevate objections. The leaders have to learn the skills to move in the pendulum from side to side.

Medium Length Last Updated: Sep 16, 2021