“What were they thinking???” — thoughts on transparent decision making


“What were they thinking???” Ever ask that question?

Chances are you have. A better question may be how long it’s been since you asked it.

Leaders get to make decisions. Some are epic, some are epic disasters; all are teachable moments. As you move up the leadership chain will others ask this question about you?


To avoid being “that guy” whose decisions makes people wonder, master the skill of transparent decision making. It’s simple: when a decision is needed tell people how the decision will be made, then follow through by telling people what information was used and how the decision was made. That’s it–just remove the mystery.

Why don’t more people do this? Some probably don’t do this out of fear. It’s well known that information is power, and sharing the magic of how decisions are made could be perceived in a Machiavellian way as a loss of power. Done correctly, however, it improves your organization’s ability to make better decisions and  that goodness reflects on your team, and you.

The list of benefits from transparent decision making are many: deepening the trust your team has in you; developing the next generation’s decision making skills; decreasing fear from arbitrary and incomprehensible processes; ensuring others bring all relevant information to the table when needed; etc.

First, you’ll deepen the trust associates and lower echelon colleagues have in you. There will be times a decision and pertinent facts must be kept private, either for security reasons or because the decision relates to personal privacy for those involved. A leader with a consistent pattern of impartial, facts and evidence based decision making establishes a widespread perception of fairness. When a decision must be deliberated in private, people will assume the same trustworthy pattern is being followed even if the information isn’t shared with them. Lay the proper foundation now and when decision making privacy is needed others will give you the benefit of the doubt. Openly demonstrate a repeated pattern of ignoring illegal discriminators and irrelevant biases as you publicly weigh facts and people will assume you always behave that way, even behind closed doors.

Next, good leaders strive to make their organizations better, and transparency teaches junior leaders the right and wrong ways to make decisions. At some point, when people have developed their decision making skills to your level of rigor, you will be able to delegate decisions you’re spending time on now to lower echelons. This empowers subordinates, and frees up valuable time for you. Further, as people around you develop their decision making skills based on your mentorship, they will better discern what information is important to bring to the table, thus enabling you to make better informed decisions.

This assumes, of course, that we all know how to make decisions which may be an inaccurate starting point. So here are thoughts on how to break out the decision making process in an organization; these are based on Michael Watkins’ book “The First 90 Days,” and explained briefly by Wayne Hastings at: http://waynehastings.com/leadership/decision_making/

At the  two extremes of decision making are unilateral and unanimous decisions, spanning from only 1 person making a decision in a vacuum of secrecy to 100% agreement by everyone involved. In between are two middle-ground decision making methods known as consultation and consensus building.

Thus the decision making types cross the spectrum from unilateral to unanimous along these lines:  Unilateral – Consultation – Consensus – Unanimous

Or for visual learners:

Decision Types

The two middle ground options are where most leaders should focus.

Consensus building rests on a group realizing 100% agreement may never be reached, but also accepting that a decision can sometimes be made if sufficient consensus can be reached. It’s critical that those who don’t fully agree with a decision still be willing to support it. With consensus building, information is gathered, analysed, and evaluated, then the group develops a decision that can be implemented.

In the consultation process a leader solicits information and advice from affected people and groups, but limits them to data gathering and analysis. The leader then evaluates and makes a decision on their own.

So how do you choose which of the four to use? Well, except in rare situations leaders should focus on the consensus building and consultation decision types. Here are some thoughts Michael Watkins proposed (http://www.amazon.com/The-First-90-Days-Strategies/dp/1591391105) on how to choose which is right fora given situation:

– For decisions that will create winners and losers, use consultation. Attempting to achieve consensus may be divisive and create animosity between people who need to work well together.

– For decisions that will be implemented beyond your sight, especially those that require a lot of energy and support from the whole team, use consensus building. If people involved have ownership of the decision they will follow though better than if a decision is made by someone else.

– For new and inexperienced teams start with consultation to teach them with a long term goal of letting them use consensus building after they’ve further developed

– For well seasoned teams start with consensus building, as they’re probably ready and capable of making those types of decisions.

– For teams you need to quickly establish authority with (such as a recent appointment as a leader among people who were peers), use consultation to establish a position of authority.

– For teams who readily acknowledge your authority, but for whom you wish to develop stronger bonds of mutual trust (such as a newly arrived commander), use consensus building if the team is sufficiently ready for it.

Be aware too that midway through a decision process you may need to switch methods. That’s okay, but be open and transparent about it. For example, if you pursued a consensus building  approach and noticed it was causing division among the team, step in and let them know you’re changing modes and will make the decision yourself in a consultation manner because you don’t want to create rifts in the team. People will accept and respect you for it.

To recap, employ transparent decision making by telling your team what process you intend to use (possibly one of the above) and walk them through it in an impartial and equitable manner. Manage their expectations up front, and then meet their expectations in delivery. Teach your team how to make good decisions, and how to discern the critical information needed when making the call. Do this as a standard mode of operating, and soon your decision making skills will spread throughout the organization, and trust in your decisions will grow by everyone who needs confidence in you and your team. Plus, it’s the right thing to do and will make work life more consistent and pleasant for everyone you work with.  Good luck!



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