Involve Others in Making Decisions…or Not!

Congratulations! You’re a modern, progressive manager. You respect your employees, and listen to their ideas. You treat them fairly, compensate them well, believe in them and appreciate their contributions. It follows, then, that you should involve them when you make important decisions, right?

Well, sort of. Let me share a story. Years ago I was in graduate school, writing my thesis. I was absolutely convinced of the worth of participative decision-making. That is, involving those affected by decisions in making the decisions. Thus, if employees were to be affected by the yearly objectives that were being set, they needed to be involved in setting them. If citizens were to be affected by the placement of the new LightRail route, they needed to be involved in deciding where that route should go. You get the idea. I was convinced that, by involving those affected by a decision in making that decision, you got a better, fairer and more equitable decision.

So, off I went to do research. Here’s what I discovered: to coin a phrase first made famous by George Gershwin, it ain’t necessarily so. The research shows that the extent to which it’s a good idea to involve folks in a decision depends on many things. If you’re facing a significant decision that will affect those who work for you, use the following questions to decisde whether and how to involve them in making the decision.
1. Do you have to have some technical knowledge to understand the issue? For instance, deciding whether to have a “casual Friday” in an office probably does not require technical knowledge – it’s more about opinions and understanding your customers (if you see customers). On the other hand, deciding the best laptop to buy for each of your 100 employees requires at least some technical knowledge, though you also need to know how each employee will use the computer to make the best choice.
2.If technical knowledge is required, do those you’re considering involving have it, or is it something they can learn quickly? If not, it’s probably unwise to expect them to be worthwhile contributors to the process. Ensure that those you involve in decision-making, whether in a group or by requesting individual input, actually have the technical skills and knowledge in the subject to provide meaningful input. Public input processes are notorious examples of uninformed folks being asked their opinions on complex issues about which they have opinions by not real knowledge. I’ve been to way too many such meetings – and they tend to be really frustrating for both decision-makers and meeting attendees.
3.Do those you’re considering involving have a significant emotional interest in the outcome of the decision? For instance, if you are considering outsourcing some work, those whose jobs might be changed or even eliminated have a significant interest in the outcome of the decision. It is unlikely that they would be able to objectively assess the pros and cons, taking themselves out of the equation for the greater good of the company or organization. As one management book author put it, it is unreasonable to expect people to enthusiastically participate in making plans for their own demise.
4.Will those you’re considering involving be working with others in this process? If so, do they have the skills to participate in a collaborative decision-making process? If this is a large or complex decision, it is best to begin the process by developing the team that will be involved. This entails setting expectations, establishing ground rules, defining parameters for the decision, defining the group’s authority (advisory? decision-making? other?) and actually providing some training in the collaborative process.

So, although I’m still a great proponent of involving those affected by decisions in making those decisions, our very complex world sometimes makes that a poor idea. In principle it’s great – but make sure involvement is really meaningful and that those who are involved have the knowledge and skills to help you reach a better decision than you would have reached without their input.

Have you been involved in a collaborative decision-making process? How did it work? Was it successful? We’d love to hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider

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