27 September 2023

Decision making: The importance of doing your own thing

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Jarrah Elliott-Moyle says staff who constantly bother executives with decisions they should be making themselves are destroying their own, and their team’s initiative.

Why do so many staff constantly refer decision-making on matters within their responsibility to the next layer of seniority?

There always seem to be pockets within a workforce who can’t make a decision on their own.

This means an executive is constantly tied up making tactical decisions about operational matters, taking away from their time to think strategically.

When I’ve looked at this problem I almost always find three barriers that are leading to the up-referral culture.

The rules make them do it:

The most obvious and most overlooked barrier is simply that the entity’s rules encourage, even mandate, upwards referral.

Governance is viewed as a set of mandatory procedures, it’s the critical oversight that we have to put in place to keep the entity complaint, it’s how the entity head maintains control.

It’s a view that is completely at odds with the broader culture almost every executive group wants to achieve.

Governance isn’t seen as an extension and builder of culture, it’s just the rules everyone has to follow.

When the governance framework mandates constant justification for what people are doing, when it is littered with standardised processes and templates.

Or when it uses scary legalise to explain exactly what punishment people face if they don’t do things exactly as directed; how do you think people are going to act?

The rules drive upwards referral, because the rules are telling people the entity head wants complete control.

There’s been a history of poor leadership:

Micromanagers are like nuclear weapons, they do a lot of damage really quickly and the fallout from their actions lasts for years.

The micromanager’s lust for complete control over the world around them sets a work group down a dark path towards long-term upwards referral.

The negative reinforcement tactics used by micromanagers see immediate results; suddenly everyone is too afraid to do anything without first seeking permission.

Eventually the best and the brightest, the strategic thinkers, the next generation of leadership, have enough of it and they leave.

The micromanager, a person who only values output in line with their personal vision, backfills with people who are good at taking direction and executing on exactly what they are told.

Micromanagers don’t employ thinkers or decision-makers, because thinkers are a threat to their own genius.

Micromanagers only hire doers.

Eventually the entire workgroup is filled with hard-working, long-tenured, mechanical cogs.

The ‘leaders’ have become enforcers, weeding out annoying people who ask irritating questions like: “Is this the best way to achieve the outcome?”

At the top the micromanager jealously guards decision-making, creating a bottleneck that all work has to pass through.

When they leave, there’s nothing but a vacuum, no one has ever been asked to make a decision and no one knows how.

So when a new leader steps into the void, they’re faced with a bunch of wide-eyed children, terrified of what might happen if they do the wrong thing

You are rewarding the behaviour:

When was the last time you saw an executive group send a decision brief back to the author with these words written on it: “This is your decision to make”.

I’m willing to bet never.

Staff are referring upwards, because executive groups are letting them do it.

No one ever got in trouble for checking with their boss before they did something.

It’s easier and safer to get someone else to make the decision than it is to take accountability yourself, so why would anyone do it?

If you let people up-refer, they’re going to up-refer.

If you’re experiencing constant upwards-referral try these three things.

Have a good long look at your governance framework in detail.

I mean the whole thing, every policy, every template, every system and process and ask yourself if it is describing, if it is facilitating, the culture you want to see.

If it doesn’t, change it.

Have systems in place to detect micromanagers early, they’ll be easy to spot when you know what to look for.

They’ll be in areas with high output and a strange combination of high staff turnover and a core group of long-tenured staff.

If you’ve caught the problem in time, spend some time and money to help the micromanager through this stage in their development.

If you’re too late and the culture of the work group has become so irreparably damaged that it can’t be saved, break it up.

Make it as hard and undesirable as you can to up-refer decisions.

Send back decisions to people who are asking you to do their job for them.

Talk to the people who are constantly asking for permission about what your expectations are, and if they can’t handle the accountability, find them something else to do.

* Jarrah Elliott-Moyle worked to protect Indigenous heritage during the Australian mining boom and believes change can only be achieved by understanding all sides of an issue, negotiation and cooperation. He can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared on LinkedIn

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