How You Make Decisions Can Make or Break You as A Leader

How You Make Decisions Can Make or Break You as A Leader

By Art Wittmann, editor of Brainyard 
⏰ 6-minute read

This is the first entry in Art of Growth, a new column by Art Wittmann. Stay tuned for biweekly posts.

Decisions are easy. Consistently good decisions that leave teams empowered, directed and productive? Not so easy. 

But before I get into that, a word about The Art of Growth. I talked my way into writing a regular column for Grow Wire because I’ve almost always had one. If nothing else, writing has been a way for me, over the past 35 years, to work out what I think is important about everything from leadership to technology to life balance and workplace dynamics. So while this is as much about me as it is about you, hopefully the public airing of my thought process is less “OK, boomer” and more “huh, that’s interesting.”

Whichever way this column leaves you feeling, I hope that from time to time, you’ll take a moment to tell me what you think. My email address is at the end of the article. 

My first experience with an organization that had trouble with decisions came just after college. I’d worked for one of the university’s computing centers while getting my master’s in engineering, and rather than grow up and join the real world, I stayed in that department for almost a decade. Shortly after I graduated and joined the ranks of the university’s academic staff, the deans decided that faculty leadership of the computing center wasn’t really necessary, so they promoted a guy who had been assistant director into the director’s role. 

He was incredibly smart and could get more out of budgets and grants than anyone I’ve encountered before or since. He was energetic and truly believed in the mission of our organization. He knew the systems we were managing very well, and he really wanted to be great in his job. He was a lot like an early-stage founder of a growing startup — he had a vision of what he wanted us to do and the technical expertise to mostly know how to get it done. 

He also wasn’t a people person, nor was he much of a leader. He’d never managed more than a couple of people, had a faculty-member boss calling the shots and was mostly untested.

As he took the reins of our 10-person crew, things got stressful fast. University teams always fret over money — it always seems you don’t quite have enough to do the things you wish you could. In those pre-as-a-service days, we had to balance network build-outs with software purchases, or trade off buying 20 Macs or PCs versus five engineering workstations. When it comes to decisions like these, there’s no correct answer. One group wins, one set of students benefits, another loses out. But the boss had a vision, and he decided. And decided. And decided. 

Everyone on the team felt like their interests were losing and that their council was being ignored. Morale plummeted. 

When it comes to decisions like these, there’s no correct answer. ... But the boss had a vision, and he decided. And decided. And decided. 

At the time, Total Quality Management (TQM), a late ‘90s fad that stressed continuous improvement across the organization and gained popularity in manufacturing, was all the rage in business and engineering schools. So off we went to learn the ways of TQM and get some employee empowerment. We spent a lot of time in training, and even more time in added staff meetings, but no one was feeling much better about our team dynamics. 

Then, one day, a speaker dropped some wisdom on us about the three types of decisions. I initially scoffed. “Three?” I thought. “What if I think of a fourth type?” Finite lists bothered me. “The seven golden principles, the five mindful rules.” Whatever. Keep your damn list, or at least have the humility to eschew a definite determiner like “the.”

I might have listened better if the speaker wanted to talk about his three types of decisions. But THE three types? No way, just another blathering fool. Yeah … I was that guy. Twenty-two and very sure of how the world worked, and oh by the way, my little team was the happiest and most productive in the group. I sure didn’t make life easier for my boss.

The 3 types of decisions

So back to the three types of decisions. As the speaker explained to them, I could immediately see the value, even through my incredulity. There are:

  • Type 1: As the leader, you make this decision. You don’t want input, and you are comfortable owning the outcome. Our little team lived a lot of Type 1 decisions then.  
  • Type 2: As the leader, I will make this decision, but only after hearing everyone and explaining how I’ve balanced competing needs and weighed all advice. This tends to be my favorite in business. 
  • Type 3: This is about consensus. Everyone must feel comfortable with the decision, and the group will not move forward until we all agree. You can spend a lot of time on a Type 3. They’re good for deciding where the family goes on vacation, less good in business.

The speaker went on to explain that while there’s a place for each type of decision, most organizations do well with Type 2 decisions, particularly — and this is important — if the leader is willing to listen to strong, well-formed arguments, even after the decision has been announced. 

👉 There’s a very short window for revisitation, but team members will come to love the leader who listens when they say, “I think there’s a better way, please let me explain.”

Everyone in our group realized that we needed this nomenclature. Until this talk, we didn’t have a way of expressing why all the Type 1 decisions were bugging us. What kind of leader won’t at least slow down and listen when the team asks to be heard?

Everyone in our group realized that we needed this nomenclature. Until this talk, we didn’t have a way of expressing why all [of our boss's initial] decisions were bugging us.

Codifying the process brought into focus the core problem: Our boss would never budge from the decision he had in mind when he walked into the meeting — even when the team knew there was a better way. 

Unfortunately, after this talk, he tried to make every decision into a Type 3 decision, which meant he’d talk to the group until our ears bled or we agreed with him. Calling him out on Type 1 decisions masquerading as Type 3 led to some heated meetings — but at least we had a framework to talk through what was going on and how we felt about it. I recall saying the words, “Can you envision agreeing to any outcome other than the one you walked in here with?” pausing a second and then declaring that his Type 3 was really a Type 1. 

Man, I could be a jerk back then. 

Making the 3 types of decisions (or not)

Whether or not you use these terms with your team, it’s helpful to think through how you decide in the context of the three types. In practice, as you go into meetings, start asking yourself what type of decision is needed. And before you say you have all the information you need to make a Type 1 choice, think: Who on your team will feel marginalized by a Type 1 decision? Whose viewpoint do you have trouble anticipating, but then find valuable?

👉 Understanding that at any given time you might be missing something important is a critical trait for leaders.

Founders are often terrible at this. The defining narrative in their minds around company and product direction is so strong that logic and facts don’t always penetrate. That’s why there’s a market for professional CEOs, who (hopefully) have the ability to step back, consider all sides and grasp that sometimes, when there is no 100-percent right answer, the willingness of the team to execute is at least as important as the decision. For that, people must know they’ve been seen and heard.   

🙋‍♂️ Art Wittmann is editor of Brainyard. He previously led content strategy across Informa USA tech brands, including Channel Partners, Channel Futures, Data Center Knowledge, Container World, Data Center World, IT Pro Today, IT Dev Connections, IoTi and IoT World Series Events, and was director of InformationWeek Reports and editor-in-chief of Network Computing. Got thoughts on this story? Drop Art a line.