Smart, effective decision-making is one of the most important and complex parts of team or organizational leadership. Leaders make up their minds based on what they already believe and the way they operate; then they deliver the decisions according to their personal style.

I’ve worked with all kinds of leaders including profit-seeking, consensus-seeking, excitement-seeking, control-seeking, risk-avoidant, and conflict-avoidant; each of these styles can be both positive and negative, depending on the circumstance.

Fast, Slow, or In Between?

Not surprisingly, many business leaders come to see themselves as “chief decider” or “chief facilitator” — and the way they make up their minds determines how how well their teams or organizations adapt to both internal and external events.

Some leaders are so decisive they seem like action figures in a sequence of change — react — change — react. Others aren’t decisive enough. They agree with the last opinion they’ve heard, cede their authority to the team’s strongest members, or wait so long for a better opportunity to come along that nothing ever changes.

When the pace of decision-making is off, it can make the work process very challenging for employees. Too much decisiveness forces followers to rebound from change to change. Or it can stall team members completely if they sit tight because they fear another grenade going off, keeping their heads down from exhaustion or avoidance instead of giving their best.

When You Can’t Get There from Here

But too much indecisiveness has just as negative an impact. It’s a weak leader indeed who can’t manage either to fish or cut bait. Sure, there are times when saying “We must wait” is the courageous course, because getting the facts or the right circumstances can take time. But if clear-headedness is needed, or if stasis is dangerous, then waiting for the perfect piece of information or insight not only delays the inevitable, but keeps people hamstrung and ineffective.

Worse yet is when the leader’s delay is due to dithering, or because the leader relies on everyone else to make the decision. Then the whole process becomes too cumbersome and many issues never close. Team members feel insecure if the leader listens to a persuasive person who actually knows nothing about a critical subject, or may hesitate to make their own decisions without knowing the leader’s position first.

There are leaders who decline to issue directives out of fear, not deliberation. They may dread being wrong and getting blamed, or are even more fearful of looking weak than of getting it wrong. Some leaders take so long to make a decision that they remind me of my mother’s caution against being “so open-minded your brains fall out,” as they consult with one team member after another rather than having a structured process for decision-making.

Here’s How You Want It to Work

The right amount of decisiveness leads to more effective implementation. And everyone feels better, too!

So consider the best-case scenario for a leader: The staff gets your intent, internalizes your decision principles and criteria, and moves in the right direction. You evaluate their process and alternatives, and back them up or tweak their choices. That spreads analysis, scenario development, risk tolerance, and control through the organization, and makes quality decision-making a cultural norm rather than a leadership event.

And you gain an additional benefit: How we work with each other is as important as our individual technical skillsets. When decision principles are shared, the act of decision-making is about the goals, the outcomes, and the organization itself — not just the leader. A leader who shares decision principles simultaneously strengthens the bench of emerging leaders and grounds decision-making in organizational values and cultural norms.

Next week’s blog will look at specific ways to help individual and teams make more effective decisions, and also suggest a few cautions to help leaders ensure that no one runs away with the store.