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How to help your team be more decisive. 

How to help your team be more decisive. 

Confidence: Decisive

There’s nothing more frustrating for a leader than to realize that every decision seems to be pinged back to them before anything can happen. Or to find that every new idea is coming from you because you’re the only one thinking strategically. If this is happening with your team, like it has with teams I’ve led, there is definitely something amiss. What this pattern of behavior indicates is that you have followers reporting to you instead of leaders. And the problem could be you or it could be them, but a little bit of both is usually the case. Let’s explore what you can do when you see this pattern emerge.

1. First, stop making decisions for them.  You are decisive or you wouldn’t be a leader yourself. Let’s start with that assumption. When a decision needs to be made, you jump right in and speak your mind, persuade about your strategy. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t encourage others to form a strategy or take risks to make decisions or bring new ideas to the table on their own. Instead, everything comes to you for approval. When they ask (and you have an opinion) don’t tell them what it is. Ask them what they think. Ask them what they advise. Ask them if they are willing to bank their success on it? Send them back to the drawing board a few times if it’s not an urgent decision. This will increase their muscle in decision-making and taking the risk of success onto their own shoulders, which is what they are trying to avoid.

2. Let the ideas come from them. Instead of giving them the ideas, suggest that they do some research and read some literature that will inspire them in their domain. They will never be as supportive of your ideas as they are of their own. If you want them to work with passion, you must wait until they find it.  Or, you can raise the creative tension a bit and require that they find what they feel passionate about or you won’t move forward on a project. If you think they won’t find it, think twice. Every person has the potential for passion. It’s usually education and knowledge and a safe place to express their passions that bring it forth. Invest in them.

3. Empower them specific levels of authority. One of the important things that I learned about authority years ago as a rising executive was to never say yes to responsibility without the requisite authority to go along with that responsibility. In short, people will try to make you responsible for outcomes and outputs and teams but withhold the authority that is required to control more of the variables. For example, if you are responsible for the outcomes of a team, but don’t have hiring, firing and P & L authority, then you are not the one responsible for the outcome. Whoever managed those things is more likely accountable for the results. So, as a leader, we have to remember this. If we want to hold people accountable for their results, we must also empower them with the decision rights that go with that. Then and only then are they more likely to be a primary cause for results. But never entirely, because no one is entirely accountable. There are too many variables out of reach of our control as leaders. So, to increase the likelihood that success is achieved, we must give as much power and control as feasible to each person under us. Give them a vision of the future state you want, explain what success looks like but then give them creative license over the who, what and how - as much as you can. Then hold them accountable for learning from their experiences and consequences. If you can’t afford to let them do this and have to make every decision yourself, then you can hold only one person accountable for results. And that’s you.

4. Be patient as they learn and let them make mistakes. Instead of making people feel rotten about their mistakes, it’s best to focus the discussion on the work output, not on the person. Don’t point the finger at them as a person, instead pin the feedback on the report, the presentation, the work, the timing, the pace and so on. A coach friend of mine taught me to always pin your critique on the “thing” not on the “person” and I couldn’t agree more. Put it between you and look at it. The thing. What are they going to do about “the thing” next time? Then give them praise when they get it right next time. Not to the person, which is akin to flattery, but praise for the result. Over-identification with the practice of personalization is not helpful, either positive or negative.

5. Turn up the tension to get attention. Of course, it is always ideal to show up as a respectful, appreciative, assertive supervisor. It’s easy to have character when nothing is going wrong. It is easy to have character after a couple of small errors. But at some point, if the shortfalls and errors continue, you (as leader) have to do something to raise attention to what you expect. If not, everything will stay the way it is. Yes, I am saying that you sometimes have to intentionally “trigger” others by raising your voice to a firmer, edgier voice, in order to be heard. Otherwise, you yourself are being passive to the norms of everyday life, when change is actually what is needed. In order to catalyze change, you sometimes have to choose to increase your volume or give tough feedback. They are not going to enjoy it. They’re not supposed to. But it’s all an important part of the art of leadership. Balancing tension with stability is that art. If you want them to feel stable, stick with being predictable. But if you want to catalyze change, the best way to get attention is to be strategically unpredictable or increase the volume. They will get past the discomfort, and even maybe thank you for the constructive nudge at some point, as long as it wasn’t a personal attack. You also need to be okay with having to do what isn’t your normal way of being. Press through and watch them become more engaged in the outcomes and perform better. Bottom line, it works.

The most important thing to remember is that both you and your team are human and thus prone to being awkward at something you don’t do all the time. Here, frequency is an important factor. If you turn up the heat too often or push too much responsibility to your team, they will eventually rebel or retreat. If you choose your battles well, they will respect you and trust that most of the time you are a good human to work with. And they will know you mean business when the pressure is on. It’s all part of the great art of leadership.