Decision-Making Protocol

by Krishna on June 24, 2010

One of my acquaintances is fond of saying, “Employees view managers as monsters, at the worst, and idiots, at the best.” The point being that, even good managers have to overcome mistrust about their intentions and judgment before employees accept their decisions. When a manager’s request comes into conflict with the opinions of employees, buy-in can be difficult and elusive.

Cases of outright insubordination are rare and easily dealt with. The real problem is when there is no support for a request, but no one is willing or interested in showing their disapproval. So a decision that seemed unanimous ends up dying quietly during implementation.

Lack of dissent doesn’t always mean hidden antagonism. It can literally mean, “everyone in support”. Which means that it requires a careful manager to understand when people are silent in support (“OK, that seems obvious“) or silent in stunned rejection (“Are you really serious?“). But evaluating facial expressions and tones can be tricky. A better approach would be to evaluate the decision-making process and protocol.

As a first step, managers need to show employees, “I can make mistakes. I need your help to correct them. Question me when you think I am wrong. I will respect your objections. And accept meaningful corrections to my decisions.” Employees already know that managers can make mistakes. But they usually presume that the managers think of themselves as God and don’t like to be questioned. And so they don’t talk back.

Making such a statement sounds corny and may probably backfire. People are used to managers announcing noble intentions and then doing the opposite. That is why I wrote “show” instead of “tell”. Managers must show their willingness to listen to counter-proposals and accept useful suggestions. And not summarily dismiss ideas even when they sound silly. This requires tremendous self-discipline and also policing, when team members beat up each other’s ideas.

It is also necessary to avoid questioning people’s integrity and focus on their knowledge of the facts. Whether a decision is correct is not self-evident. Based on what they know, different people may arrive at wildly different conclusions. Ask people about specific facts so that everyone is on the same page with respect to the information relevant to the issue at hand.

Finally, when there are no remaining visible disagreements, a decision is made. The clock start ticking. Even if someone silently disagrees with the decision, the work has to be done. Whoever has been assigned tasks is responsible for finishing them. Any past disagreements or objections are considered to be irrelevant and should not be allowed as justification for missing milestones. Only new events that may affect the outcome should be monitored and escalated, such as an employee unable to perform a task because of unforeseen technical challenges, or scheduling conflicts.

There will be situations where a decision has to be made even if some people (or even a majority) has clear, open disagreements. But the protocol remains the same. Every decision is made by the person who has the ultimate authority bestowed by the organization to make such decisions. And so regardless of their dissent, everyone else is obligated to follow the decision.

Why should it be that way? Well, the reason is that the manager is the person with the ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the work. And they have the right to make a decision that everyone disagrees with, as long as they are fully accountable for the outcome of that decision. [In real life, of course, managers find scapegoats all the time.] Employees should reconcile themselves to the decision or quit if the decision is totally unacceptable (decisions seldom fall into this second category).

What if the employee, instead of not quitting, decides not to follow a “dictatorial” decision and does what he thinks is best? You may think that all he has to do is assume the responsibility for the outcome. After all, results are what matter and, if things go well, all is usually forgiven. Right?

Unfortunately, failure is always a possible scenario. And when that employee fails, he also takes his co-workers down with him. And few organizations have the patience for a manager who was hands-off and didn’t use his authority to steer the project on a correct course. Disaster for all.

And so the Golden Rule for all decisions is “Speak up, quit or forever hold your peace.” Anything else is an invitation for failure.

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