I recently oversaw a study designed to clarify the relationship between pivotal decisions and leadership. Based on our nationwide survey of 500 college-educated adults in professional careers, representative of 16% of adults in the United States, we uncovered four distinct decision-making styles, all defined by the level of accountability and ingenuity employed.
- A leader continually works on improving how things are done in large and small ways, seeking different perspectives, and bringing people along a purposeful mission.
- A manager focuses on the job at hand without greater vision or ingenuity.
- A wanderer offers exciting ideas but can’t make things happen.
- A clock puncher stays in a comfort zone and resists change.
Particularly when making decisions at pivot points—which by definition call for changing the status quo—you need to avoid the trap of risk avoidance and make decisions like a leader. However, our study found that, over time, most people tend to move toward the status quo–with increasingly unsuccessful results.
People slip in and out of the four decision-making modes, but tend to default to one of them. For those who find themselves not making pivotal decisions consistently as a leader, it is likely that they have landed unwittingly in one of three common traps.
The first trap I uncovered is complacency—it’s simply easier not to rock the boat. New ideas take work and face too many skeptics. Insular thinking sets in, making ideas more safe than imaginative and solutions more recycled than on target. But a key finding in our study is that people who focus only on the day-to-day issues—even with diligence and excellence—don’t get the successful outcomes leaders get. To stand out as a leader, make appointments with yourself—literally, block out time on your calendar—to brainstorm on a regular basis about forward-looking needs of your team and business.
Another trap that almost everyone falls into on occasion is busy-ness. Being so busy getting through a day can leave no time for matters that need careful thought. Daily interactions at the office become primarily transactional, such as project and information updates. Ideation and problem solving become work done solely in scheduled meetings and the annual planning process. There’s no other time to discuss new perspectives and ideas with colleagues and customers. It becomes a way of life and years pass since you had an idea that truly excited you. Our study found that leaders make the time to talk with a variety of people to explore a number of options and to gain support for ideas. So, I often advise people to make the time to have lunch once a week with someone other than daily contacts to have conversations that explore new ideas and options.
Playing it safe
A third common decision-making trap is having more concern for keeping your job than for doing your job. The job of meeting expectations can turn into managing by a checklist. While it’s certainly important to deliver according to agreed upon goals and expectations, the job of the leader also includes inspiring others through example and outlook. People want to be part of something that engages the passion and optimism of their leaders. They want their leader to care about the work more than they care about profits, and to care about what the team thinks. Our study found that leaders worked hard to build enthusiasm and to make sure that everyone affected by a major decision understood his or her thinking.
Overall, the most important differentiator of leader decision-making is reaching out to people, listening to them, understanding the problems people struggle with in their jobs, and building awareness and support for decisions. Often, people lend support simply because they feel treated with respect and appreciation when they were asked to give their perspective. Accountability for rallying support is so important that, if you do nothing else differently, do this as a regular part of your job and you’ll likely see more consistently successful outcomes.
Coming up short on ingenuity, the other key measure of leadership decision making, can also be a blind spot for many people. Often, they fail to see the extent to which they stay within the comfort zone of the status quo. They don’t know what they don’t know. From the vantage point of their comfort zone, new ideas appear as more work and disruptions than they are worth.
The challenge is to recognize these warning signs in your approach to decisions. It’s difficult to see yourself as others see you. It’s easy to trade off effectiveness for efficiency just to get through a day, especially when technology and globalization enable constant connectivity. This makes it more important than ever to look truthfully at the trade-offs we’ve made and which of them we want to reclaim, where we are, where we want to go, and take action on closing the gap.