The problem with your decision makers

Decision Makers

If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ve probably heard the term “decision makers” bantered about a couple dozen times. I actually just watched this movie Get A Job with Anna Kendrick and Miles Teller, whom I love. In this movie, which really isn’t that good, Bryan Cranston — a long way from Breaking Bad here — plays Teller’s dad. Cranston loses his job but thinks he’d be a perfect fit for this other job, right? So he basically stalks the decision makers at the other job and keeps using the term “decision makers” in a creepy-ass way. It’s odd to watch, but it’s not that far off from how a lot of people talk and think about work. We’re always wondering what “the decision makers” are up to and how that’s all going to play out.

I shouldn’t have to define this for you, but the decision makers usually means … C-Suite people, SVPs, MDs, unit chiefs, silo heads, etc. Those are traditionally the decision makers in any organization, of any profit structure, with any number of employees. It’s also called hierarchy.

The whole issue and concept around decision makers is very fraught, tho. Let’s investigate.

The Decision Makers: Um, are they really?

I don’t want to spend this section throwing turds at different types of managers — if you want to read something like that, read this — but here’s the sheer fact of the matter. Most managers (not leaders; those are different concepts) aren’t very good at their jobs, and most operate from a place where they fear incompetence (or being seen as incompetent) more than anything. When you fear incompetence, the main thing you do is make safe decisions around areas you already understand. That’s basically why most companies aren’t very good at digital marketing and have shitty websites, in general — because the teams that run or “own” their website process probably come from more traditional backgrounds and don’t spend a lot of time caring about the site. That’s starting to change as new generations arrive in the workplace, of course.

One of the biggest ‘safe zones’ for most managers is swatting down good ideas because they perceive the good idea as a threat to them. We’ve all had managers like this. If you haven’t ever had one, consider yourself very, very lucky. The Idea-Swatter is a rare joy to work for.

In the course of all this Incompetence-Avoiding and Idea-Swatting, there’s actually documented research that most front-line managers aren’t very good judges of new ideas.

So think about this, then. Based on research and observation, we know that:

  • Many managers fear incompetence and make safe decisions
  • Many managers swat down ideas from others, perceiving them as threats
  • Even if they’re not swatting down ideas, chances are they aren’t successfully evaluating the good ones anyway

Hmm. So how exactly are managers decision makers in an organization? If you go down this rabbit hole far enough, you start to understand this idea that middle management might be on the verge of extinction. If you’re all doing is moving crap from Bucket A to Bucket B and your CFO can open up Dynamics and see all the numbers he needs to ‘run the biz,’ then what the heck is the point of you?

Short answer: ain’t no point.

Long answer: Let’s keep going.

The Decision Makers: How it really is

Of course, no one really expects middle managers to be the decision makers of a company. It’s all the top dogs. Usually this is 7-10 people, but it varies by size of organization. The dirty little secret of most jobs is that a bunch of people in the middle fart around all day yelping about the different processes they own and manage, but everyone is really just waiting for one of these 7-10 people to chime in. That’s part of the reason why e-mail is so awful — everyone’s really just running in circles and adding new peeps to threads until one of the true decision makers jumps in from above.

This whole arc bring us to one of my favorite topics: unclear priorities in organizations. Click that link and get some tissues handy, because you will weep. Basically, many jobs are a giant and elaborate game of Who’s On First?

No one ever really knows WTF is going on. You got true decision makers yelping about one thing — probably most couched in buzzwords, give or take — and then you got middle managers screeching about another thing, rank-and-files eye-rolling about a third thing, and the secretarial pool bellowing about something else. It’s all typically very, very unclear by the time it gets from “Here’s a bunch of buzzwords that we will call our annual strategy, mission statement, and core values” down to “I arrived at my desk at 8:47am. What should I do today to drive value for myself and this company?”

The alignment of those two quotes is the alignment of strategy and execution. Most organizations are terrible at it.


Just how terrible?

Here’s an article from Harvard Business Review called “The Greatest Barriers To Growth, According To Executives.” Seems like a noble title. Growth is what most companies seek, yes? And executives are tasked with getting them there, right? So maybe there will be something interesting in this article, no?

OK, so the article talks about various ‘distortions’ with an organization, including:

  • Speed (how fast stuff actually happens as you scale up and have more and more employees)
  • Motivation (why people are actually there grinding for you)
  • Time (Meetings, calls)
  • Decisions (how decision makers get information and process it)
  • Information (how it flows around the company)

Here’s a great quote from the decisions section of the article:

A number of years ago we studied in detail how the most important decisions like product approvals were made at a large pharmaceutical firm. The results shocked the management team, revealing that nearly seven in ten decisions involved a process that the participants could not describe with a wide range of views on who the decision maker was.

Alright, so consider that: pharma firms typically make billions of dollars. At a place most people would call “a successful company,” 7 in 10 decisions involve a process that people can’t describe with a wide range of views on who the decision makers are.

That’s almost comical.

The Decision Makers: Then vs. Now

I didn’t work in the 1960s, because I wasn’t yet alive. But the ‘then’ model of decision makers seemed to be more rigid hierarchy, information floats up, decisions come back down. Yaaaas.

Many managers want this to be the ‘now’ as well, but the smart teams and organizations are flipping the script: quick teams, pulled together, hit a target, disperse those people to other teams. It’s a consultant-military type model and it’s taking hold in good orgs. It allows you to more quickly hit the stuff you need to hit and keep the resentment mostly at a low hum.

More Articles On Decision-Making and Priorities

You might like some of the other things I’ve written on this topic:

Of course, if you go back above to the incompetence and Idea-Swatting aspects of many managers, this really infuriates decision makers. When you move to a ‘Team of Teams’ model, it basically says: “Hey, we know you have 33 years of expertise in this vertical. Who gives a shit? We’re trying to make money and we need faster, more agile processes to do that — because Johnny in the Mission District Coffee Shop is about to rack back an app that will lose us 4 cents on every dime.”

Even though those italics hit the decision makers right in the wallet, they don’t care. They bark and yelp and screech and bellow and holler about how relevant they are, all their successes, how their gut doesn’t fail them, etc. That’s why our hiring process mostly sucks — “Could we use People Analytics, boss?” (pause) “Hell no Meredith, I trust my gut!” — and why the status quo is so prevalent in many organizations. Even if they have the best intentions for change, change is hard and change involves people. People have emotions and want to protect certain feelings.

You can’t just say “We’re an agile org!” now. By shifting from traditional to agile, you’re affecting a lot of people’s feelings about how they connect to work. It’s very powerful, and we often ignore that part of it.

The Decision Makers: It’s hard out here for a pimp

Look, it’s not easy being one of the decision makers at any company. Almost everything is heaped on you. “Employee engagement strategy? Let’s wait for buy-in from the decision makers!” (Will never happen.) “Make HR more lean? I’ll run it up the flagpole to the decision makers!” (No shot.) Etc, etc.

If you ever wonder why so many senior leaders come off as money-obsessed douchebags, that’s your basic reason right there: if 547 different things are being thrown at you every day because you’re one of a handful of decision makers in an org, well, what are you going to do? You gotta focus on the 10-12 (max) things you can do successfully in a day, right? So why focus on ‘talent strategy’ when you can focus on ‘revenue growth?’ Your bonus won’t be contingent on talent strategy. It will be contingent on revenue growth.

I don’t necessarily know how to solve the problem of poor contextual ties from decision makers back to the broader organization, but I do believe that everything work-wise comes back to the alignment of strategy with execution and the setting of legitimate, effective priorities for people all over the departments. If you do those two things moderately well, I think you make money and create a mostly-enjoyable place to work.

Your thoughts on the evolution of decision makers over time?

Ted Bauer


  1. I find it that in organizations decisions makers shy away from signing their name under anything and being solely responsible for even the simplest decisions. I think with the corporate lay offs targeting high-paid management staff made things worse. Hence comes endless meetings, committees, PMOs, anything and everything that will turn every decision into collaborative act.

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