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  • Dorothy Spinacki & Christa Dhimo

The Every-Business Series: Decision-Making Is Not Power-Making

In answer to our Impono Followers asking for guidance on "every-day matters," we created "The Every-Business Series," an intense-read series based on '2 Points and 1 Real-World Example' created specifically for Impono's followers. Keep your feedback coming so we can be sure to continue addressing your questions!!



We all know that control does not make a leader competent any more than a competent leader needs to always be in control. In fact, quite the opposite applies in both cases.

We also know that most companies have a hard time making decisions. Problematic to a "can't-make-decisions" culture is what perpetuates it: the perceived or actual notion that only those in power can make decisions, because only those in power have control.

A lot of companies talk a good game about empowering line managers to make decisions, usually followed by a list of terms and conditions or a slap-down a few weeks later when a higher-level manager asks why he or she wasn't included in a decision-- despite it clearly being within the scope of a more junior line-manager.

Until we all get over the fact that decision-making isn't power-making (it's actually what you do after the decision is made that generates power), we will see dozens of companies stall out on progress each day, each month, each quarter, and each year.

We also see a lot of proclamations made in lieu of good decision-making process. Avoid that at all costs. We beg you.

Here are two points and a real-world example...


Point #1: There is a difference between proclamations and good business decisions

For all intents of this article, consider "proclamations" the same as announcements. We all know leaders who have progressed upward because of his or her proclamation reputation. Then we watch someone even higher-up confusing that behavior with effective decision-making. As such, Proclaimers are often perceived as "fearless," "taking the initiative," making "decisive decisions."

However, in reality many times we've observed that Proclaimers simply make a decision, often with few involved, then follow it with an announcement.

Now we're not knocking announcements-- there are times when it's appropriate for a smaller group of leaders to come together, discuss-decide, then a leader makes an announcement. In these circumstances, the announcement is usually a milestone amidst a well-planned change that may impact the overall customer base, the end-users, the supply chain, the employees, etc.

That's not what we're talking about here, though.

We're talking about those who confuse decision-making with power-making. We're talking about the same shallow value of the louder one in the room fooling everyone into thinking her or she is smarter, or the more opinionated one in the room appearing to have the edge on reality.

The problem with Proclaimers is this: in our best estimation, proclamations come from a reactive state, not a proactive state. Very seldom have we seen a proclamation come out of constructive debate, keen listening to experts on a particular situation, or (in all actuality) a savvy decision-making process. Rather, we have observed that proclamations follow knee-jerk reactions to what a leader, and often the top leader, sees as disaster, chaos or something producing ongoing frustration.

Proclamation Example (destructive use of power):

Operations Leader to the CEO: "CEO, we have another instance where Building 7 out of our 35 buildings is down in free-coffee inventory by 8%-- clearly someone is taking the coffee."

CEO to Operations Leader: "That's it, no more free coffee for any employee!! I don't care if 34 other buildings comply-- they'll all have to deal with Building 7 ruining it for everyone else-- NO MORE FREE COFFEE FOR ANYONE!" (a proclamation)

In the USA, we have a tendency to think that the person who makes a decision the fastest is the the most competent leader simply because he or she appears to take control-- worse yet, it may appear that the leader took control because no one else was willing to. But what we've seen in our decades of experience across multiple companies and industries is that many, many employees are willing to take control and make decisions. If they don't, it's because the risk far outweighs the benefit.

Or it's because they feel they are not in position to, or have enough power to, make those decisions.

In that case, decision-making isn't power-making... in fact, we argue that these cultures actually reduce effective decision-making in the long run, solving amongst those who nod their heads and dissolving the effect of what it really means to be "in power." (which we should all feel within the scope of our roles)

Proclamation Example (constructive use of power):

Operations Leader to the CEO: "CEO, we have another instance where Building 7 out of our 35 buildings is down in free-coffee inventory by 8%-- clearly someone is taking the coffee."

CEO to Operations Leader: "OK, that's frustrating and disrespectful to everyone else who is complying. Can we get 1 person from each building to work together and quickly decide on how to keep Building 7 in line? THIS IS GOING TO BE SOLVED IN TWO WEEKS." (a proclamation)

Point #2: We have yet to hear a good reason why people cannot make decisions within the scope of their role (it is always simply about power)

Not everyone can relate to the mental pain and anguish of reporting to someone who tries to make your decisions, or who believes that their decisions are better simply because of [insert a demographic: age, gender, religion, etc]. Businesses suffer when they do not align decision-making within the scope and accountabilities of job descriptions. (arguments about exempt and non-exempt laws aside)


Real-World Example:

The Maternity Plan, A True Business Case

This is the case study of a 42-year old pregnant woman with an impeccable professional reputation both in and out of her organization, who was employed as a Department Head for five years in an organization where she had not only proven her worth to the organization (she created the department specifically to enable a better-run organization in preparation for a successful IPO), but had also proven to have one of the most steadfast continuity plans in the company. She understood the business, she was well-liked in the organization, and with her 6-week maternity leave expected in the middle of the summer-- a fairly slow time-- she knew there was nothing to worry about, at all.

She had recently been re-organized from reporting to the CFO to reporting to a new COO-- new because the COO had never been in a COO role before (almost her entire career had been in Sales) and new because the COO role was the first of its kind in this particular company. The learning curve for the new COO was high and the stress levels matched appropriately. Given the Department Head's holistic view and expert knowledge of the global business, the re-org was planned as a match made in heaven.

Unfortunately, the new COO was completely overwhelmed, and most of the meetings between the new COO and this Department Head were canceled or rescheduled.

That said, five weeks before the Department Head's planned due date, and just 30 minutes before the Department Head's surprise Office Baby Shower, her female COO had other ideas about the maternity leave.

The COO proclaimed that they were going to use the Department Head's maternity leave as a means to manage someone else out of the company: when the manage-out person wasn't able to do the job, it would be clear that the person should be managed out. According to the COO, that was the new maternity plan.

(Yes, yes, there are all sorts of HR issues riddled throughout this story, and that's because the HR department had been relegated to a tactical position vs a strategic partner, and also slave to a proclamation environment-- we'll talk about that in another post. As incredible as this case sounds, this is in fact a true story, backed up by details in an HR file we are privy to while respecting all aspects of confidentiality.)

The Impact

The COO was known for her proclamation reputation, so at first the Department Head figured this proclamation would be followed by a rational discussion. The Department Head imagined having a conversation about why they would ever introduce unnecessary risk by giving someone who had never led a Department-- much less the critical department in charge of corporate performance programs-- full oversight to the Department Head's work while she went on maternity leave.

But that rational discussion never happened.

In fact, according to the HR files, the Department Head rationally expressed concern about giving a junior manager outside of her Department the full-reign of her continuity plan. She cited "poor qualifications, lack of internal relationships, lack of understanding the business model," and a few other reasonable concerns. Interestingly, no one debated the need to manage this person out of the company, but the Department Head's rightful position on the matter was that it should be managed with the poor performer's direct manager and through appropriate process-- not through a maternity leave plan, and certainly not when the Department Head's work was so visible to the organization and investors.

The COO then asked the Department Head, "well, where can I send her for training so that she can do what you do and then the qualification piece is taken care of?"

Decision made. All appropriate concerns dismissed. No discussion.

Five weeks before the due date and a six-week maternity leave.

Thirty minutes before a surprise Office Baby Shower for the Department Head (who evidently entered her own party looking pale, and later reported how she "faked happiness during [her] Office Baby Shower for the sake of her team").

No thought about timing. No consideration of business impact.

No acknowledgement of or respect for the Department Head's known competency with decision-making and / or the clear effectiveness of her continuity plan.

In the end, the decision-making process was about power, and it took its toll.


The Debrief

Aside from the obvious HR issues with discussing a continuity plan in this manner with a high-performing, pregnant, 40+ year old women just weeks before her due date (breathe in, breathe out), there was little attention made to where a continuity plan decision should reside and how it could impact the business. The Department Head had proven ability, seniority, positioning, and had made excellent decisions on behalf of what was best for the company for a few years before reporting to the new COO. None of that mattered.

In this case it was about power, and decision-making being related to power-making. When the COO received a challenge she simply pulled rank: "There's no point in arguing-- you're going to lose. This is how it's going to be. I've made my decision." (as reported in the HR file, which no one-- not even the COO-- refuted as having been said)

Also captured in the HR file and paraphrased here: the Department Head was clearly rattled, but remained as calm despite being told just weeks before her maternity leave that her high-impact work and leadership role was going to a low-performing worker whose absence of leadership acumen was evident by all.

The COO concluded the meeting shortly after the proclamation was made, and it wasn't discussed again.

After a few days the Department Head met with HR, at which point she learned from HR that the COO had self-reported her 'debacle' meeting to HR right after the meeting, expressing to HR how awful she (the COO) felt about the encounter. With HR's help, the COO and HR decided to resolve the issue with an apology and reversing the maternity leave proclamation. The original continuity plan would be respected and followed. Another decision made.

As also noted in the HR file, when the Department Head showed surprise about hearing of a possible apology, the Head of HR himself was surprised to hear that the COO had never re-addressed the circumstances nor did she offer an apology to her high performing senior employee.

Power-making indeed.

[Unsurprisingly, while meeting with HR and hearing about the discussion about, but no follow-through to offer, an apology, the Department Head decided privately she would depart the company shortly after returning from her maternity leave. Only months later while negotiating her exit did the Department Head hear any form of an apology from the COO.]

Beware, oh the damage, of a proclamation.


Your Management Action

As a leader and manager, a critical aspect of your role is holding others accountable. You cannot do that if you never let others make decisions.

Worse yet, if you make decisions on the basis of feeling more powerful, or if you cannot allow others to make decisions within the scope of their role because you feel less powerful in doing so, manage that or go home. You will meet your peril otherwise.

Of course, most leaders and managers with control issues, particularly with decision-making and the need feel powerful through decisions, hardly think they have a control issue. Instead, they often feel that those around them are less competent and therefore can't possibly make good decisions. For some tips on general issues and tricks for managing bad management, see a previous post from us.

If you are just starting out building an organization or looking to grow your small business: now is the time to understand how you make decisions, how you let others make decisions, and how you hold yourself and others accountable in your decision-making culture.

And if you think decision-making is power-making, chances are your "decisions" are simply proclamations. Your smartest, brightest, best people-- those you should strive to surround yourself with-- will know that, you will get less from them, and they will leave.

BOTTOM LINE: Your power is certainly impacted by your decisions...

... but your power is developed by how you lead through a matrix of decisions: yours and others. You cannot hold others accountable if you are always making the decisions, and you will eventually make poor decisions if you are the only one allowed to make decisions.


We know that launching a new or transforming an existing organization isn't simple, but it can be easier with the right advisors and doers. If you have additional questions about this topic or how it can impact your business, contact us. Let's see what we can do for you.

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