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Courtney BarnesOct 22, 2018 6:00:29 AM3 min read

Outstanding Decision Making Is a Work in Progress

Most people agree that the best leaders know how to make difficult decisions, under pressure and even when it means going against the crowd. What many people don’t appreciate is that how leaders make decision early on in their careers is typically very different than how they make decisions as they assume greater levels of responsibility. In fact, the ability to evolve one’s decision-making style over time is one reason why some mid-level managers keep climbing the corporate ladder and others do not.

When an Established Decision-Making Style Becomes a Deficit

When I met Sahar, she was in his mid-thirties and had been working in the technology sector for nearly two decades. She had come out of the gate running and landed her first management position by her mid-twenties. Her ability to make decisions quickly and under pressure was recognized as a strength and highly valued. After more than a decade in the fast-paced startup world–Sahar was offered an executive-level position at a large and established technology company. She was excited about the new challenge and after years of leading teams in the startup world, she welcomed the chance to work  at a different level in an organization already operating on a global scale. This is also when she realized that her greatest strength might be her greatest weakness.

In her new executive-level role, Sahar’s tendency to make decisions quickly, often with only limited information, was viewed as impulsive and even irresponsible. Some senior-level colleagues felt her style wasn’t sufficiently collaborative. By the time she sought out my coaching services, Sahar–who had always been a highly confident manager–was full of doubt about her ability to lead.  

Over time, Sahar came to appreciate that success in her new role necessitated abandoning her attachment to a decisive and fast-paced decision-making style. A deeply self-reflective leader, she soon accepted that in this new role, her decision-making style needed to evolve. However counterintuitive it may have felt at first, she eventually realized that moving at a slower pace–one that permitted her to spend more time gathering information and weighing conflicting perspectives–was now essential.

Decisiveness and Speed Matter for Mid-level Managers

Mid-level managers often make multiple decision a daily basis. At this stage of one’s career, one typically oversees a portfolio, department, or division and has staff who report directly to them.  As managers, they are still very much in the bullpen, making the best decisions given constraints. Many decisions they make on a daily basis are simply about keeping projects moving forward.

In most cases, mid-level managers need to make decisions quickly and often without as much information as they may like to have on the table. In a 2006 study on decision-making styles, Kenneth R. Brousseau and his colleagues concluded that this likely explains why a “decisive style, which combines the use of minimal information and a single option, is dominant among first-level supervisors but nearly nonexistent among senior executives.”

Weighing Multiple Perspectives Matters for Senior-Level Executives

As one’s career evolves, one’s decision-making style also needs to evolve. In fact, as Brousseau and his co-authors observe, in sharp contrast to mid-level managers, the decision-making style of top executives tends to focus less on speed and decisiveness and more on weighing multiple perspectives over time. But they also note that this “multifocused” approach isn’t necessarily visible.

On the surface, many leaders still appear to make decisions quickly and decisively. Behind the scenes, it’s a different story.  They often take their time, acquire as much information as possible, and weigh multiple perspectives before reaching decisions. The reason for this is obvious: Unlike their lower-level counterparts, top-level executives are often making decisions with hold long-term consequences that may impact thousands of individuals and not simply members of one’s immediate team.

Internal Thinking Versus External Leading Styles

As your career evolves, it becomes increasingly important to pay attention to relationships, connections, and perceptions. You need to be out in the world enough to collect data and feedback from a wide range of stakeholders. At the same time, you need to give yourself ample space and time to engage in sustained perspective taking. But notably, the face you wear in private may not be the face you where in public. Your internal thinking processes should be a bit messy–at the highest levels of an organization, leaders benefit from turning things over in their minds multiple times as they strive to look at issues from every possible angle. Externally, presenting a clear and concise (and non-conflictual) vision is every bit as important.