Rate the extent to which you would agree or disagree with the following statement: “My organization promotes making decisions at the lowest possible organizational level.”

Strongly agree? Strongly disagree? 

If your organization is typical, my guess is that your response is somewhere in the middle: a solid “meh.” And this over-centralization of control ties into the heart of what makes organizations, teams and leaders slow and stagnant. 

Furthermore, how might you rate your immediate department or team? What about your direct supervisor? What about yourself?

One aspect of decision-making in organizations that makes it difficult is that it requires an appreciation of the paradoxical nature of management. That is, with many types of behaviors too much or too little is ineffective at best or disastrous at worst. With decision-making, for example, you can’t push every single decision to the lowest level. Doing so would put people at lower levels in highly risky and awkward positions. 

Yet the problem more frequently than not, in my experience, is that executives and managers hold onto too much decision-making authority. This creates huge backlogs of initiatives that never move forward because various parts need approval from the boss. It also, over time, teaches everyone on the team that they’re helpless and can’t do things on their own. 

What’s important is to follow one of the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles—number eight of 11 in the list.

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Make sound and timely decisions.

Note that it doesn’t say to rush to judgment, or to make every decision as fast as possible. Believe it or not, even in the military, there are thousands of situations that aren’t life or death and don’t require an immediate decision. Sometimes, a little more time and information gathering is appropriate. 

For all managers, a helpful rule of thumb is to ensure that decision-making authority follows expertise. People who know the most about a certain area probably should be more involved in making decisions about that area than others. 

As managers, it also means that we should continually build the expertise of those under our supervision. As people gain expertise and competence in an area, they earn the authority to make decisions within that swim lane. 

Pair decision-making authority with expertise.

Pairing decision-making authority with expertise and continually building expertise are two ways to make sound and timely decisions as a team or organization. 

But it’s also important to make sound and timely decisions on matters that only you as the leader can decide. And this has two parts:

  • Making sound decisions is all about ensuring you’ve gathered the data you need (without being paralyzed by a lack of information that might never be available), talked to the people who have different insights and considered unintended consequences of your potential courses of action. 

  • Making timely decisions means that you must have a firm grasp on what’s important versus what’s urgent in your organization. Is this an issue that must be decided now? If so, why? It also means that you take appropriate risks to grow your business or move toward a strategic objective. Timing is important, but there’s rarely a perfect time to do anything. 

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When I talk with people who aren’t managers, it’s common for them to tell me how frustrating it is when their managers refuse to make decisions. Often, this stems from a manager who’s just trying to get by and do what’s expected. The manager is unwilling to stick his or her head out even a little bit and do something even a little bit bold. 

But isn’t leadership fundamentally about doing that? Isn’t it about going beyond what people expect you to do and acting independently for the good of the group? 

I think so. And as such, I think it’s important for all of us as leaders to remember that it’s our job to both encourage others to be leaders and make decisions, but it’s also important for us to do the same—by making sound and timely decisions ourselves. 

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References and for further reading

For all posts regarding the 11 U.S. Navy Leadership principles, click here.

The 11 principles:

  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement

  2. Be technically and tactically proficient

  3. Know your people and look out for their welfare

  4. Keep your people informed

  5. Set the example

  6. Make sure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished

  7. Train your unit as a team

  8. Make sound and timely decisions

  9. Develop a sense of responsibility among your people

  10. Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities

  11. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions