Stepped decision-making: Every decision at the right level

In a previous post, I explained why you should trust the competence of your colleagues. In this post, I go a step further and discuss stepped decision-making, or delegating responsibility for a certain task, role, or function to the lowest possible hierarchical level in the organization.

Let’s start with what typically goes wrong:
  • Scenario 1: The leader is too scared to make decisions and waits until consensus is reached within the team. This leads to many and long meetings, sometimes to discuss trivialities.
  • Scenario 2: The team member is too scared to do anything without first checking with the leader. This causes lots of process loss and a very busy leader.
  • Scenario 3: A laissez faire leader, or no leader at all. Team members make all the decisions, also those above their level of authority. Result: either no decisions are made, or nobody sticks to a decision because it lacks authority.
  • Scenario 4: A leader who leaves decisions at team level and subsequently bawls a team member out when their decision turns a situation awry.

Clearly none of these scenarios is very effective, efficient, nor pleasant to work in. Stepped decision-making addresses these issues. So how do you as leader implement this?

Taking trust in another’s competence to the next level

Trusting your colleagues expertise and letting them get on with what they’re hired for is a good start. Your task as leader is to facilitate the conditions in which team members are able to actually get on with it. In the ideal situation, everyone knows exactly what the boundaries are of their responsibility. And only when that responsibility is both appropriate and delegated to the team member can stepped decision-making be implemented. This principle goes for all hierarchical levels in the organization, from the CEO to management teams, and all the way down to the work floor.

What can be arranged up front?

It helps when you up-front invest in agreeing general guidelines with your team members on an individual basis. This means a dialogue to agree clear boundaries of each team member’s responsibility. Dialogue is important. Not only must you be prepared to delegate responsibility, the team member must also be willing to take on that responsibility. The team member is then delegated all responsibility for decision-making within these boundaries. Delegating responsibility sends two clear messages: I trust your competence (fulfilling the need for mastery), and I believe you will get on with it in the way that best suits you from within your expertise (supporting the need for autonomy).

Take your responsibility

Stepped decision-making only works if you as leader take responsibility for the decisions belonging to your scope of authority. In scenarios 3 and 4, this is a pertinent issue to address. In a matrix structure organization, a horizontal dialogue between the functional superior, the hierarchical superior, and the team member needs to address who has which authority for all three parties.

Escalation needs to be clear

Escalation guidelines and routes also need to be agreed. The general rule is that decisions are only escalated to a higher hierarchical level when they exceed the delegated responsibility: when decisions cannot be made at team level, when the impact goes beyond the team’s authority, or when budget will be exceeded. Rather than spending lots of words defining all the conditions when decisions should be escalated, stick to defining the circumstances in general terms.

Allow for dynamic shifts

Guidelines shouldn’t be cast in stone. Ensure regular dialogue to check things are working as they should and encourage team members to communicate openly with you. You facilitate by coaching and enabling the team member to grow in their ability to take appropriate action from their expert point of view. And put in a rider: whenever the team member believes from within their expertise that escalation is warranted, they escalate that decision. This fits well with the LEAN principle that the work floor detects challenges and opportunities, discusses, and implements change programs.

Delegating responsibility, or stepped decision-making

In summary: Stepped decision-making supports coworkers’ need for mastery and autonomy.  It is good for an effective organization where people can get on with what they were hired for!

Note: This post originally ran on the Lead Change Group site on November 9, 2018.

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