Just Make a Decision Already
October 7, 2013 Editor 0
Strategic decisiveness is one of the most vital success attributes for leaders in every position and every industry, but few leaders understand where it comes from or how to find more of it. It is not surprising that picking one strategic direction and then decisively pursuing that direction are hallmarks of good leadership, if not boilerplate management skills. The big mystery is why these obviously important skills are still rare enough to distinguish excellent leaders from average managers.
In researching Why Quitters Win, I came to recognize the three primary sources of decisiveness — nature, training, and incentive — and also how you can manipulate them to claim an advantage for yourself and your organization.
1. Decisive By Nature. In a 2010 study, Psychologist Georges Potworowski at the University of Michigan found that certain personality traits (e.g., emotional stability, self-efficacy, social boldness, and locus of control) predict why some people are naturally more decisive than others.
When faced with two equally attractive strategic options, timid, less emotionally stable leaders who fear upsetting anyone will let the debate drag on for weeks or months before selecting a compromised Frankenstein solution that both sides can merely tolerate. At the end of the year, the team is moderately satisfied with their moderate impact on a smattering of moderately important objectives. The team successfully achieves mediocrity, which is then reflected in the leader’s mediocre performance ratings.
More decisively gifted mangers make it clear from the beginning that they will carefully consider both sides of the argument, but will ultimately choose what they judge to be best for their team. They make the decision early on, and move quickly to enlist both sides in executing her decision. Some members of the team are not thrilled with the choice but are quietly pleased to finally have some clarity of direction. The team makes significant progress in the chosen strategic direction, which is reflected in their high performance ratings.
2. Decisive By Training. In the mid-1990s, researchers Shelley Taylor of UCLA and Peter Gollwitzer at NYU discovered that when contemplating a decision we have not yet made, virtually everyone will temporarily exhibit the same personality traits — neuroticism, low sense of control, pessimism — that the Michigan study linked to indecisiveness. As soon as we make the decision and begin charting the steps for executing it, our brains automatically switch gears. All of the sudden, we feel confident, capable, and in control — the perfect mindset for behaving more decisively.
In other words, all of us have the potential to be decisive or indecisive. In a given day, most of us slip in and out of a decisive mindset. The excellent leaders in Kevin Wilde’s study have simply learned how to make “decisive” their default setting. That initial decisiveness puts them in a more decisive mindset which begets even more decisiveness and so on.
Paradoxically, it seems the best way to slip into a decisive mindset is to make a decision. But in my experience, simply training people to apply a simple process with a clearly defined start and end point gives them the emotional permission they need to get the ball rolling with that first decision.
3. Decisive By Incentive. In 2006 Agilent Technologies CEO, Bill Sullivan decided that his managers’ decisions were not keeping pace with the rapid industry changes. Within just 3 years, the company’s mangers leaped from the 50th percentile in decisiveness (relative to industry peers) up to the 82nd percentile. How?
Together with his head of Global Talent, Kirk Froggatt, Sullivan created a simple “speed to opportunity” metric in which they periodically asked every employee to rate their manger on decisiveness. The simple metric made Agilent’s managers constantly aware that timely decisions are both valued and rewarded in their organization.
Neither the training mentioned above, nor incentives like Agilent’s decisiveness metric invalidate data-gathering, collaboration, and critical thinking skills. These skills should be baked into the decision process itself. The point is to clarify for managers that all of these skills are merely means to the true end goal of making a decision. If the end result is not a timely decision, then it doesn’t matter how much collaboration or critical thinking took place.
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