“I once served under a manager who just could not make a decision. In staff and planning meetings, all we heard was “I don’t know”. It didn’t seem to matter what the issue or question was – whether strategy, or markets, or products, or vendors, or planning, ad infinitum. No matter what we did, nor how we communicated or reasoned with him – he just could not overcome his indecisiveness. This went on for more than a year – and it created a huge negative impact not only on individual and team moral, but also our work products, our portfolio, and the broader market-facing business we supported.
Despite the fact he was truly a genuinely nice guy who was liked by his staff and peer managers, and seemingly had the support of his superiors – his indecisiveness was driving us crazy. I followed him into his office and shut the door. As controlled as I could, I let him know what his indecisiveness was doing to the team and the business – and that perhaps it was time for him to consider something else. I believe we were both a tad surprised by my directness, and for a moment, the thought occurred to me that perhaps I had inappropriately crossed some boundary. He was a gracious man and the awkwardness only lasted a moment, and I quietly left his office.
To everyone’s surprise, within a few days, he announced his resignation from the company. We subsequently learned that he left our industry altogether and went in a career direction that was closer to his heart and his true passions (knowing this, and as well as where he landed – I am truly and genuinely happy for him…. may we all operate in our passions!) In retrospect, it was clear that the gravity of the position had been weighing upon him heavily, and that he clearly had been considering his future options for quite some time.
Unfortunately, while this was perhaps my most dramatic encounter with indecisiveness – it would not be my last. In the following years, I would encounter similar situations – and far worse – from seemingly very smart and even brilliant people – in multiple companies and in different organizations. Decisions and issues and problems would be allowed to linger unresolved in the organization for months – and in some cases, even years (no exaggeration).
These situations were allowed to affect morale, and some cases, directly affect service delivery to the clients served. I am of the firm belief the root cause of indecision (at it’s core) is the fear of personal accountability for one’s actions and decisions. A close second would be fear of conflict (there are those leaders who cannot tolerate ANY conflict – especially if it becomes visible outside their own organization). (I have no doubt accountability and conflict could be lengthy threads unto themselves).
To be clear – “I don’t know” is a completely and perfectly acceptable answer to any question – and is just as valid as any other empirical answer (yes/no, go/no-go, approve/disapprove, etc). However, when that answer is tendered, it should be followed up with questions aimed at getting the employee to find the answer within a reasonable and specified amount of time commensurate with the magnitude and severity of the question. Tactical or strategic questions may take a little more time (days or weeks) while operational support questions may require a shorter span of time (seconds, minutes or hours). Repeatedly coming back to the table with “I don’t know” is just not acceptable.
It is not fair to the business, nor the organization, nor the employee. To that end, I developed a leadership philosophy wherein I will accept an answer of “I don’t know” once…. perhaps twice…. maybe even three times (depending on the magnitude of the issue)! Each time, the employee can expect a series of probing questions and recommendations in response. However, come the fourth time I am presented with that response – with all the available due diligence at hand – I will make a decision and we’ll move forward.
The point I am illustrating is while leaders need to celebrate decisive thinking – we also need to recognize when indecisiveness and paralysis have crept into the organization – and take decisive action to stem the weed before it spreads. Especially in the IT world where executive expectations have long been set for rapid response to business challenges. I admit there may be some out there (in our new collaborative culture) who will think that my philosophy is too aggressive or authoritarian. My view is this is exactly what should be expected from people at all levels of leadership!”
When not reading, writing or thinking of my next blog post, I am supporting my favorite charities: Teen Living Programs where I am a mentor, committee member and Executive Board member and YWCA Chicago where I am an Associate Board Member. I am passionate about causes related to supporting youth, women and families. Particularly in the areas of education, employment, violence intervention, social services and housing. With a keen intuition on helping people tap into their brilliance, I am passionate about helping people grow. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to know more about my charities or this blog.