When Good Decisions Look Like No Decision

Whether it’s in the front-line or in the boardroom: making decisions is the lot of all who manage. Few decisions are ‘black and white’, but some solutions to managerial problems look a lot more attractive than others. In fact, what looks like a good decision today might well come back to haunt the same manager tomorrow…

There’s an old adage that is useful advice for anyone starting out on her or his first management role:

“Your staff love a good decision; your staff can forgive a bad decision; your staff will never forgive no decision.”

Decision-Making Is Easier From A Distance

Decision-making always looks easier from the outside. Often, because what people can see – which is often some distance from reality – is a shallow representation of the facts.

Perhaps you’ve already been there: your employee is already firmly on the disciplinary path due to their ‘interesting’ interpretation of what constitutes reasonable attendance, but other team members are secretly bemoaning the fact that the timekeeping of their colleague is not being dealt with.

What can you do? Immediately inform the team that the recalcitrant individual has – that morning – been formally censured about their tardy time keeping? Of course not, but what a cleft stick you find yourself in! Damned by the bad timekeeper because you do and damned by the team because they think you don’t.

In the manager’s world it’s tough to be seen to be doing the right thing. And what’s worse, if you think back to the little saying that this article opened with, others unfairly think that you have chosen the third option: no decision.

It’s all very perverse, good decisions sometimes look like no decisions, especially when it comes to people issues.

Lesser Managers Make It Obvious

Lesser managers often seek to ‘advertise’ the fact that they are dealing with a problem in a subtle way; perhaps they’ll put a difficult individual at a distance that’s noticed by the other team members; they might even opt for the loathsome “Can I have a quiet word, please….” spoken – publicly – to the individual in such a way that the rest of their colleagues are in no doubt that a severe mauling is imminent and blood about to be spilt.

But such behaviour serves to position the ego of the manager as someone who (to misquote Thomas Hardy’s memorable phrase) ‘notices such things’. It’s a clumsy attempt to show the team that the issue is being dealt with… whilst making sure that they are not really supposed to know that the issue is being dealt with!

In short, it’s not discretion that’s the challenge for any manager with integrity; it’s living with the consequences of that discretion and the short-term unpopularity such an approach creates.

Macho Management Always Looks Good

This is where the macho school of management is so attractive. Short-term, the ‘being seen to wade in and sort it out’ school of people management looks spectacular. It doesn’t feel good for those having to witness it, but – we concede – it looks spectacular. It establishes hierarchy. It’s being seen to be the boss. It’s Popeye despatching Brutus in a spinach-fuelled frenzy of muscle-pumped violence.

Short-Term Fixes Can Be Damaging Too

But it destroys more than it creates. The team’s trust in the manager plummets as they realise that they are under the direction of someone who applies Genghis Khan solutions to people issues. That night, those same staff will be dropping in to the newsagents for the classifieds before rooting out their old CVs.

The short-term fix is – like so much in working life – the easy option: its rewards more obvious and, to the shallow, too good to resist.

The long-term option offers fruits that ripen at some future date. Worse still, a period of unpopularity may well have to be endured before such fruits are savoured.

Perhaps that is why good managers are appreciated at a distance. Good decisions only begin to blossom over time, and by then the team has long forgotten the issue. In fairness, individuals within the team may come to appreciate much of that period in hindsight, realising that decisions must have been taken, matters dealt with, and problems paired with surprisingly effective solutions.

People do love a good decision. Unfortunately, such admiration may well exist long after the relationship has ended.

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