An Approach to Conquering Indecisiveness

It is the job of the CEO to make decisions, everyone knows that. They do it frequently throughout their tenures. In order to have an impact on the organisation, those decisions must also be carried out by the entire organisation. The companies that don’t suffer from a culture of indecision.

Discussion is always safe in organisations that have successfully shed a culture of indecision. The same cannot be said about underperformance.

Does this sound familiar to you? You are pitching to some key sponsors how you can help them solve a problem. Suddenly, the room falls silent. 

People look left, right, or down, waiting for someone to begin the conversation. The boss has yet to reveal their position, so no one is inclined to comment on what is going on.

The CEO finally breaks the loud silence. In an effort to show that they are doing their due diligence, they ask a few sceptical questions. However, it’s evident that they have decided to support the project. After a while, the other attendees of the meeting join in dutifully, maintaining a positive tone. All participants appear to support the project from the remarks that were made.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive. There is concern among the head of a related division that the new project will drain resources from his division. VP of supply chain believes that the forecasts are outrageously optimistic, leaving him with an unsold warehouse full of inventory. There are others in the room that are lukewarm about the project because they see no benefit for themselves. The meeting ends inconclusively as they keep their reservations to themselves. Through a series of strategy, budget, and operational reviews, the project is slowly strangled to death over the next few months. Clearly, the true mood in the room was in opposition to the apparent consensus, but we are not certain who was responsible for the killing.

I have witnessed many instances even at the highest levels of big organisations where little closure and silent lies led to false decisions in the course of my career as an advisor. Inaction and unspoken factors eventually lead to their undoing. Through 25 years of observation, I have discovered that these instances of indecision are closely related to misfires in the personal interactions that should produce results. Decision-makers fail to connect and interact with each other. The group dynamics of hierarchy intimidate them, and they are constrained by formality and lack of trust, which causes them to speak woodenly and without conviction. They fail to act decisively because they lack emotional commitment.

It is rare for these faulty interactions to occur in isolation. Rather, they are representative of how major and minor decisions are made-or, not made in any organisation. The inability to take decisive action is rooted in the corporate culture, and employees seem recalcitrant to change.

The keyword here is “seems,” since it is leaders who create a culture of indecision, and leaders can break it. Human interactions are the primary tool at their disposal, through which assumptions are challenged or not challenged, information is shared or not shared, and disagreements are raised or buried. Dialogue is the foundation of work in an organisation. Dialogue determines how people gather and process information, how they make decisions, and how they feel about one another and about the outcome of these decisions. Dialogue can lead to innovation and speed, which are competitive advantages. It is the single most important factor underlying the productivity and growth of the knowledge worker. I have found that the tone and content of dialogue affects people’s beliefs faster and more permanently than reward systems, structural changes, or vision statements.

Breaking a culture of indecision requires a leader who can engender intellectual honesty and trust in the connections between people. By using each encounter with his or her employees as an opportunity to model open, honest, and decisive dialogue, the leader sets the tone for the entire organisation.

Setting the tone is only the first step. In order to transform a culture of indecision, the organisation’s social operating mechanisms — those procedures through which workers make decisions and deal with problems — must be built on honest dialogue. They set the stage for the transformation. Together, they establish clear lines of accountability for decisions and actions.

Creating a decisive culture requires follow-up and feedback. Leaders are successful when they provide follow-through and honest feedback to reward high achievers, coach those who struggle, and redirect the behaviour of those who are impeding progress.

By paying attention to their own dialogue, carefully designing social operating mechanisms, and providing appropriate follow-up and feedback, leaders can create a culture of decisive behaviour.

It all begins with Dialogue

Companies that are successful are often studied for their products, business models, and operational strengths. Yet products and operational strengths don’t really set the most successful organisations apart – they can all be rented or copied. We have seen that what cannot be easily duplicated are the decisive dialogues, robust operating mechanisms, and the feedback and follow-up that accompany these. A company’s enduring competitive advantage is the result of these factors, and they are heavily dependent on the type of dialogue a leader exhibits and thereby influences throughout the organisation.

Decisive dialogue is easier to recognise than to define. In addition to encouraging incisiveness and creativity, cohesion is created between seemingly disjointed ideas. Tensions are exposed and then resolved by fully airing all viewpoints. People tend to feel emotionally committed to the outcome of such dialogue since it is an intellectual inquiry instead of advocacy, a search for truth rather than a contest. People feel like the result is right since they contributed to its design. It has energised them and has readied them to act.

How Dialogue becomes Action

As important as the dialogue itself is the setting in which it takes place. Four characteristics define decisive corporate cultures: openness, candour, informality, and closure. 

There is no predetermined outcome when there is openness. Alternatives and new discoveries are explored honestly. Questions like “What are we missing?” pull people in and show that the leader is open to all viewpoints. Leaders create an atmosphere of safety that encourages spirited discussion, group learning, and trust.

The way Candour works is slightly different. It involves speaking the unspeakable, exposing unfulfilled promises, and raising conflicts that impair apparent consensus. By candour, we mean that people express their true opinions, not what they think team players should say. Candour is designed to eliminate silent lies and pocket vetoes that occur when people agree to things they don’t intend to do. Using this method prevents the need for unnecessary rework and reexamining of decisions.

Informality encourages candour; formality suppresses it. A stiff presentation or prepackaged comment suggests that the whole meeting has been meticulously scripted. On the other hand, informality has the opposite effect. Defensiveness is reduced. A more open atmosphere encourages people to ask questions and react honestly, and the spontaneity is energising.

Informality loosens the atmosphere, whereas closure imposes discipline. At the end of a meeting, everyone knows what to do. When people are held accountable and given deadlines, closure produces decisiveness. This tests a leader’s inner strength and intellectual resources. A culture of indecision is primarily due to the lack of closure coupled with the lack of sanctions. 

A robust social operating mechanism consistently includes these four characteristics. Such a mechanism has the right people participating in it, and it occurs with the right frequency.

Follow-Through & Feedback

Follow-through involves either personal follow-up, a telephone call, or the routine conduct of a social operating mechanism. It is in the DNA of decisive cultures. Those who fail to follow through destroy execution discipline and encourage indecision.

When people are compelled to always be direct, cultures of indecision change. One of the best ways to encourage directness is through performance and compensation reviews, especially if they are explicitly linked to social operating mechanisms. Unfortunately, the performance review process is too often as ritualised and empty as the business meeting I described at the beginning of this post. Employee and manager both wish to get this over with as soon as possible. Keep up the good work, here’s your raise, and let’s do this again next year. In these situations, employees are not given real feedback, nor are they given an opportunity to learn the sometimes painful truths that will help them grow. It is the lack of candid communication and leaders’ emotional fortitude that brings down great compensation systems.

Leadership is essential to changing an indecisive culture. It’s a matter of asking hard questions: Are our social operating mechanisms robust and effective? Are they linked? Is their frequency appropriate? Are they operating consistently? Is follow-through built-in? Can rewards and sanctions be linked to the results of the decisive dialogue? Also, how productive is dialogue within these mechanisms? Is our dialogue open, candid, informal, and conclusive?

Transformation of an indecisive culture is a difficult and demanding endeavour. It requires all the listening skills, business acumen, and operational experience a corporate leader can muster. But it is just as important to possess emotional fortitude, follow-through, and inner strength. It is never easy to ask the right questions, identify and resolve conflicts, provide candid, constructive feedback, and make distinctions between people using sanctions and rewards. Frequently, it is downright uncomfortable. There is no wonder many senior managers avoid it. Short-term, they avoid considerable emotional strain. However, their evasion sets the tone for a group that cannot share intelligence, make decisions, or resolve conflicts. They miss the point of effective leadership. 

A leader who insists on honest dialogue and follow-through will be rewarded with not only a decisive organisation, but also an engaged, energised, and empowered workforce.

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About the Author

Jason Novobranec is Implementary’s Chief Operating Officer.

With over 20 years of Consulting, Program Management & Senior Leadership experience, Jason has delivered initiatives for large multi-national / multi-regional organisations as well as SME’s and is an expert in shaping solutions to fit a customer’s project needs.