If you’ve ever had the distinct impression that you could accomplish so much more for your organization if only the decision-making processes your organization utilizes were clearer, you’re not alone.
Organizations in both the private and nonprofit sectors suffer from a chronic case of decision confusion. This means that it’s unclear who has the power to make which specific decisions directly affecting people’s jobs.
This problem is especially apparent at nonprofit organizations, which often vacillate between a time-consuming and inefficient consensus approach to decision-making, and concentrating decision-making power in the hands of a small group of senior staff. But confusing decision-making processes complicate jobs and operations at private companies as well. Wherever they take place, these confusing processes stifle innovation and effective operations while hampering results and preventing people’s talent from being used well.
Who can sort through these unwieldy and ineffective decision-making practices? HR leaders. HR people know their organizations and can spot decision-making conflict and confusion a mile away. Why should they? Because HR is under continual pressure to redefine its role and the ability to clarify organizational decision-making will drive organizational performance and innovation.
In the July/August, 2015 edition of the Harvard Business Review Ram Charan and his co-authors offer an article entitled, “People Before Strategy: A New Role for the CHRO”. In it, Charan notes that “research by McKinsey and The Conference Board consistently finds that CEOs worldwide see human capital as a top challenge, and (yet) they rank HR as only the eight or ninth most important function in a company. That has to change.” The authors go on to assert that the most important actions that the CHRO, or for that matter any HR person, could take is to help their “CEO (or manager) by building and assigning talent … and working to unleash the organization’s energy.” I agree. But how do you help HR leaders create innovation that will “unleash” organizational innovation?
I believe that the key lies in fostering the right decision-making ecosystem. Within it, an organization’s greatest source of innovation – its present and future team members – can function to its full potential. Effectively tapping this source of innovation has been a longstanding challenge.
HR people can and should work with their organizational leaders to create this ecosystem by understanding and ultimately re-designing how decisions are made, removing conflict and confusion along the way. They can implement the clear, transparent process this requires: one that engenders trust and reduces fear among team members. Driving innovation by harnessing the decision-making capacities of all those involved is our solution.
Like an iceberg floating in the North Atlantic, some elements of decision-making confusion are on the surface, but most of the time the issue operates below the waterline. That’s because it’s easiest to simply not talk about them, since the mere idea of doing so evokes quite a bit of fear. This fear can be divvied up into three types:
Fear of failure, which often drives concentrated decision-making practices and undermines the involvement and development of those not involved.
Fear of rejection, which limits the issues that people are willing to discuss.
Fear of conflict, which causes people to hold back from advocating for specific decisions they’d like to make.
In my years both as an HR exec and a nonprofit leader, I have seen very few under-performing people but I have seen many under-utilized people. I’ve seen staff that have a title but know that they’re facilitators rather than decision-makers, and I’ve seen many people leave organizations because they don’t feel trusted to make decisions. We under-utilize our people and wonder why we’re not achieving our missions.
The way to move past this is to push decision-making down to those who are closest to the decision and to train staff and managers in how to advocate to make or support the decisions that affect their jobs. As HR comes under increasing pressure to redefine its role to add greater value to the organizations it serves, I propose clarifying the decision-making process as a new and critical mission. By learning how to identify and resolve decision-making bottlenecks and drive decision-making authority to the people who are best equipped to make each respective decision or support it, HR professionals can make a world of difference.
- Develop a methodology for taking inventory of and prioritizing the decisions within your organization. Really, forget about your plans and white papers for a second. Get granular. What are the key decisions facing your organization right now? Write them down. How many are there? Probably more than you think. Do you know who’s going to make them? Is your organization clear about that? If you have an interest in a particular decision to you have a way of inserting yourself into the decision-making process?
- Work out shared language supporting this methodology by providing vocabulary to describe each decision or set of decisions. After you survey the decision list tell your boss, “this decision,_________________,affects my job and I’d like to be the person who either makes it or supports the decision-maker.
- This shared language will also help teams navigate the worries that will inevitably spring up during the course of conversations. People are often reluctant to be this direct but it’s important to do so. No one will melt and our consulting practice confirms that people don’t go crazy with power. Instead they advocate to make the decisions they initially hought they would be able to make when they entered the organization. Encourage people to speak up and advocate for the decisions they want to make.
- Recognize how fear complicates the decision-making process, and talk about this too. Given the immensity of your nonprofit’s mission and the difficulty of quantifying results, do you or your colleagues shy away from decision-making or leave it all to the executive director for fear of failure? Are you hesitant to take on decision-making roles for fear of creating conflict among the members of your team? Do you hold back on voicing certain concerns due to a fear that your colleagues will reject them and turn their backs on you?
- Consider and talk about the role that biases surrounding race, gender, class, sexual orientation and privilege may play in shaping your organization’s decision-making dynamics. Decision-makers tend to have more societal privilege than those who implement decisions. Does the concentration of decision-making power evoke fear, discomfort or reticence within your team?
Once the conversation about decision-making processes is underway, it’s important, too to support and reinforce a culture that makes it a priority to proactively resolve conflict and confusion surrounding how decisions are made.
This critically important role would not only bring great credibility to the HR profession: it would help organizations at a fundamental level by allowing people to engage and contribute at full capacity.
Photo by Lars Plougmann