Power Imbalance in Decision Making

by Krishna on December 24, 2006

Here is a fable (I believe from Aesop) about a wolf and a lamb. The wolf wants to eat the lamb and tries to justify the action with excuses, all of which are refuted by the lamb. Finally the wolf gives up the pretense and, without waiting to solve any rejoinders, pounces on the lamb.

This happens all the time in organizations. Whenever there is a decision to be made and the senior person has already made up his or her mind, he or she is not looking for a discussion on the subject. The person is only looking for acceptance or confirmation of his or her thinking. The subordinates can make any arguments they like, but nothing is going to change.

Some executives do this without any malicious thinking. They actually step into meetings without realizing that subconsciously they have already made a decision. While they should be keeping quiet and listening dispassionately to all arguments, they interfere to promote a particular point of view. As each subordinate realizes where the manager is heading, they slowly start shutting down themselves. Lo and behold, there is a consensus.

Sometimes, however, one or more of the subordinates don’t really get the fact that the decision has already been made, so they keep arguing, sometimes becoming passionate in the process. The unfortunate part is that while they may be saying all the right things, they get branded as uncooperative.

So what do you do when you are on the wrong side of the power equation and find that your manager is going against all sane thinking? Well, one way is to first completely agree with the manager’s point of view and offer your support, putting you and him/her on the same side. Then you start asking questions about how to handle the various potential situations and risks that may be the result of the proposed action.

By not putting the manager on the defensive, you allow him or her to slowly back down from or dilute the position they have taken without humiliation. Most managers don’t like to lose an argument for fear that they would seem intellectually inferior to their juniors. At the very least, you can put in defensive measures to avoid any problems that may arise from the manager’s actions.

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