Supervisors worth their salt are always looking for ways to improve how those they oversee make decisions. With the influences of menu-driven technology, impatience for immediate outcomes and the fear of doing or saying anything that others might find offensive, this is becoming harder and harder to do.
We can provide our people with strategies. We can encourage them to use their best judgment. We can even try to force them, although that rarely goes well. But in my opinion, the one thing most of us don’t do is compel those around us to think independently.
In my mind compel, is the sweet spot between force and encourage. You can force someone to respond exactly the same way each time a particular decision needs to be made. You know – “Here are the seven steps. Follow this exact procedure. Don’t deviate from the process.” Of course, this rarely goes well because there are exceptions to every procedure and rules are made to be broken. Besides, removing any element of control or authority from a person’s work, kills the incentive to care about outcomes.
At the other end of the spectrum is encourage, or as dictionary.com puts it, “inspire with courage, spirit or confidence.” This might be a pep talk, a vision statement, or a great story about how others make the decision. But when the rubber meets the road, everyone realizes that its their reputation on the line. Encourage them all you want. They’re still going to ask for your approval before making a move if they’re unsure of themselves.
Compel is defined as “having a powerful and irresistible effect.” In other words, people feel a responsibility for doing the best they can, not just for the organization but for you personally. They want to live up to your expectations and the faith you have put into them. They don’t want to let you down. Wouldn’t you like to have a powerful and irresistible effect on the people you supervise? How do you do so? Here’s what I’ve have found that works:
Proclaim your faith in their skills and smarts. Most of us need to be reassured occasionally that we’re competent, especially when faced with a significant unknown or pressured-filled situation. Proclaiming that faith is a combination of two elements: 1) Empathy – “I can understand how you might be nervous about acting. Rest assured that I’ve been there as well.” 2) Encouragement – “You can do this. You’ve made decisions like this before and are certainly competent to make this one.”
Rather than providing approval, think the decision through together. Educators call this technique a “think-aloud.” When someone wants to be told what to do, say “Let’s think it through together. You begin.” Then wait for them to take the first step. That gets the momentum going and reassures them that they are capable of making the decision. Do this enough and the person will grow more confident and stop coming to you with decisions they’re capable of making alone. It just takes persistence on your part.
Ask them to review their decisions regularly. Get them to explain a decision they had to make and explain how they approached it. What was the situation? What action did they take? What was the outcome? What did they learn as a result? In today’s intense work environment, few of us take enough time to reflect on the work we’re doing. Asking your people to think about how they make decisions periodically will force them to slow down and process. Most times, this won’t take more than a few minutes during a one-on-one. Some will need this more than others. But everyone should have the opportunity, even seasoned contributors.
Celebrate with them one-on-one. Follow up on decisions you know your people are making and give them a pat on the back. When employees are competent, it becomes easy to take them for granted. Take them aside once in a while and let them know that you know and appreciate their work. You don’t need hats, horns and balloons, just a bit of validation (and maybe a cup of their favorite coffee).
Celebrate their decision making with others. Or maybe you do need hats, horns and balloons. Once in a while, it lifts everyone to take a short break and celebrate someone’s expertise during a meeting or even spontaneously during the day. People are making good decisions around you all the time. It helps to remind everyone that that’s true.
The next time you’re challenged to think about how to improve the decision making around you, think of the word compel and these five strategies.