We are all decision-makers

By F R (Rhys) Robinson

If you ask people who the decision-makers are in their organisation, it’s likely that they’ll point towards the CEO and other senior executive directors. The truth is, however, that each person in the organisation takes decisions that have the potential to affect not only themselves, but the entire company.

Every person is a decision-maker. Realising that empowers employees and builds a culture of ownership and accountability, which in turn benefits the business.

Obviously, senior leadership positions come with large responsibilities, including making far-reaching decisions. But decision-making doesn’t only happen at the top – it happens at every level. For example, an HR manager might recruit someone in a junior position, and that person might eventually rise through the ranks to become the CEO. An articles clerk might pick up a mistake that exposes risk in the company’s financial reporting processes, which can then be addressed. An IT systems specialist might recommend a new software programme that optimises workflow, resulting in happier and more productive staff and more efficient business processes.

Decision-making needs to take place at every level of a business. When that doesn’t happen, companies stagnate. Instead of being agile and adaptive, they become inefficient and eventually get left behind.

Empowering people to take decisions

People shy away from taking decisions for a variety of reasons, from fear of punishment for making a poor choice to a lack of confidence, ineffective organisational structures, bureaucracy, or even plain old laziness.

Often, the issue is not limited to a few individuals, but is an organisational culture that needs to shift. And sometimes it starts with the small things. For example, when Mary Barra became CEO of General Motors, one of first changes she made was to the company’s dress code. She narrowed it down from 10 pages to two words: dress appropriately.

It may seem like a strange thing to focus on, but at the Wharton People Analytics Conference, Barra said, “What I realised is that you really need to make sure your managers are empowered—because if they cannot handle ‘dress appropriately,’ what other decisions can they handle? And I realised that often, if you have a lot of overly prescriptive policies and procedures, people will live down to them.”

Barra realised the importance of empowering others to take decisions, and thereby to lead. “I want [managers] to take ownership of the rules and say, ‘You're accountable to lead your team,’” she said at the 2015 Catalyst Awards, explaining the policy.

For senior management, empowering employees to take decisions requires a few things:

  • Leading by example. Be prepared to take decisions and own them, which also means shouldering responsibility when they don’t pan out.
  • Allow for mistakes. If your employees are scared to take decisions for fear of retribution if things go wrong, they will either be paralysed or they will try to shift the decision that needs to be made to someone else’s desk. Focus on building a culture where mistakes are allowed, and people are expected to fix their own mistakes, but are not punished for making them. Instead, reward honesty and initiative.
  • Get rid of dead wood. Start by hiring for cultural fit first (skills can always be taught), but also learn to let go of people who are unwilling to pull their own weight. In the long term, they will cost you time, money and frustration.

Taking initiative at every level

For people who are not part of the senior management team, but who aspire to be leaders, you can lead at any level in an organisation, or wherever you are in life. In fact, this is the idea behind LeadSA, an initiative that calls every person in South Africa to lead. “We all have a responsibility to make the world a better place,” the website says.

The same is true in business – each person has a real responsibility to make the organisation the best it can be, and to lead in whichever position they find themselves.

This means:

  • Taking initiative. Instead of waiting to be told to do something, leaders see a gap and fill it.
  • Speaking up (respectfully). Leaders speak out against misconduct, they speak up for their teams and they share their thoughts for the benefit of the organisation. Of course, the best leaders are also humble and treat those they interact with, with respect.
  • Taking ownership. True leaders don’t try to pass the buck (or the work). They take complete ownership of their tasks and are accountable for their successes and their failures.

Whether you’re on the board at your company or you’re just beginning in your career, you can lead from where you are, and you can help to build a leadership culture within your organisation.

F.R. (Rhys) Robinson, PhD is Executive Director, Infinitus Reporting Solutions (Pty) Ltd.



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