How to Make Decisions When You Have Too Many Options

You know what it’s like. You stand in the toothpaste section trying to decide between ultra-white, super-white, or optic-white. Perhaps you need to choose between the 354 shades of white paint at the home center. Or maybe you’re stuck behind a person in the coffee shop who is overwhelmed by the difference between the upside-down caramel macchiato and the cookie mocha crumble macchiato with whip.

The world has too many choices. The other day, I needed to send someone a very large digital file. I Googled my options. On the first page alone, I found five alternatives, all free. They just wanted my email address. It can be exhausting to navigate through the average day when you’re bombarded by thousands of options.

So, how do you make well-considered decisions when you’re faced with too many choices? Allow me to share a few strategies from the top thinkers I’ve interviewed and observed over the past three decades.

Make fewer decisions – Every decision you make, large or small, consumes some of the blood glucose (sugar energy) your body needs to function. This is the reason you feel tired having battled traffic on the way to work. The same is true if you spend the first 30 minutes of the day clearing emails, Slack messages, texts, and Linked In notifications. The best decision-makers take stock of all the decisions they make during the typical day and work to eliminate, delegate or automate as many as they can. This leaves them with more energy to focus on the issues that count.

Focus your criteria – When was the last time you made a significant decision based on impulse? The options overwhelmed you. You might have simply surrendered because you were tired of thinking. You might have said, “Fine, I’ll just go with that option,” just to get the issue off your plate. The most effective decision makers take time to think through the elements and options before going to the meeting, entering the store, or meeting with the vendor. They also prioritize these elements to reduce the chance of getting sucked in by the “bright shiny object” rather than the critical consideration.

Ask for advice – Effective decision makers proactively ask for the input of others. Where others hesitate for fear of rejection or appearing dumb, these individuals approach anyone they think might be able to share helpful information or insights. That said, they are careful to examine the context within which the input is provided. In an unfamiliar restaurant, they will ask a nearby patron for menu recommendations rather than the waiter who wants to upsell them. In choosing a vendor, they will listen to other customers rather than the team member who keeps pushing for a particular option. Don’t be afraid to ask for input. Just keep it all in perspective.

One of the main reasons people have a hard time making decisions is that they are afraid of losing options. As a result, it can be easy to get stuck out of a desire to keep your options open. This phenomenon has been magnified in recent years by the endless choices on the internet. The best thinkers recognize how easy it is to be overcome by the fear of making a mistake. In response, they work hard to make fewer decisions, focus on their priorities and ask for trustworthy advice. In concert, these three practices enable them to act with confidence and without fear of failure or regret. You should too.

Good Decision Makers Always Say Thank You

Jay Leno tells of buying a half gallon of milk at a grocery store. When he got to the checkout stand, he said, “good morning,” to the cashier. She didn’t look up. He asked, “How’s your day going?” Still no response. He gave her two dollars for the milk and the change came rolling out of the coin dispenser. He scooped up the change and said, “Have a good day.” Still nothing. At this point, he’d had enough. “Aren’t you even going to say, Thank you,” he snapped. Finally, the cashier looked up. “It’s on the bottom of the receipt,” she said.

This story always gets a good laugh, because we’ve all been there. But here’s the thing; Jay’s been telling that story since the 1980s. I have had the privilege of getting to know a lot of good decisions makers. Hopefully, you have too. One of the things that has made a lasting impression on me is how unfailingly appreciative these people are. They’ve recognized that if they say thank you, it is generally reciprocated. This plants the seeds for other opportunities.

I say “thanks” for even the smallest gestures. If nothing else, it generally brings a smile to the other person’s face. In some cases, I get a “You’re welcome” in return. Once in a while someone will say, “I really appreciate that. No one seems to say “thank you” anymore.”

I learned a long time ago that if you are appreciative, the other person is more likely to share that feeling of goodwill. I’ve been upgraded on airline flights any number of times, for instance, because I was one of the few passengers treating the gate agent with warmth. That has always bedeviled me. Why would you be gruff to the person who controls your seat assignment and level of service? Yet so many people do.

We are increasingly living in a less-than-civil world. But that doesn’t mean we have to respond in kind.  The best decision-makers know this and use it to leverage their relationships and influence. Besides, it just feels good and is what a civil society requires.

When Good Enough is Good Enough

I can become consumed trying to ensure I have done the absolutely best job or made the absolutely best decision. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I know that the details count. I want to be proud of the work I’ve done. As a result, I sometimes find myself going down “rabbit holes” in pursuit of the exact words when I’m writing, the perfect look when I am recording a video, or the absolutely choice finish when I am creating something in my workshop. Sometimes I get so focused on getting it right that I look up and suddenly realize I’ve spent way too much time on an element of the effort that no one else would care about.

Of course, I am not alone in this. I’ve had colleagues tell me it took them three years to write a book because they wanted to get the words just right. As a result, they wrote and re-wrote sections and still weren’t happy when it eventually went to press. There is a place for this kind of exactness, of course. It’s been said that Ernest Hemmingway sometimes struggled for weeks in crafting a single sentence. Fred Astaire rehearsed dance routines until everyone’s feet bled. Top comedians have been known to take months to hone 15 minutes of material. Golfer, Chi Chi Rodriguez used to spend hours a day on the putting green.

In those types of performance environments, I applaud their dedication. But outside of this, it is easy to be consumed by details that matter little in the overall outcome. I’ve watched teams spend hours on the details of a proposal rather than on focusing on the relationship with the prospect. I’ve participated on boards where insignificant issues have been allowed to coopt the mission or primary outcome. I suspect you have as well. When we look back on the time and effort put into some of these dalliances, will we even remember what they were about?

One of the mantras I have adopted over time is “Good enough is good enough.” (This is a cousin to the phrase, “Life’s too short.”) Most work does not need to be that precise. That doesn’t mean I’m sloppy. It is important to meet the expectations of the supervisor, stakeholder or our own sense of quality and integrity.

But “good enough is good enough.” I’d rather get my project, article, product out to the people it can help rather than delaying endlessly until it is my idea of perfect. I have to balance the time and effort expended with a reasonable outcome. There will always be imperfections. This past summer, for instance, I replaced the stairwell of the deck on our house. Did I make a few minor mistakes? Yes. Do I notice them when climbing those stairs? Sometimes. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to rebuild those steps this summer to correct errors no one else will notice. Good enough is good enough.

When I begin to realize I am hyper-focusing on the minutiae, I ask myself three questions.

Number one, “What is an acceptable outcome for this effort?” Once again, that does not mean I don’t care if I do my best work. It’s just that there are only 24 hours in each day and only so much energy. Am I making the most of it? Number two, “What are the stakeholders expecting?” This past weekend, I painted some interior window trim. Truth is I did not paint the tops of the trim because no one is going to see them. Visitors to my home are not going to climb up to see if I did so. If I stumble over my words once or twice in a 15-minute video is anyone going to notice or care? Number three, “Is what I’ve accomplished good enough?” In other words, can I live with the present result? Five years ago, I published a book that won three awards. Are there thoughts in that book I’d like to go back and refine? Sure. But the book has already won three awards, so it must be good enough.

Have I made my point perfectly here? Probably not. But I hope I have given those of you who suffer from this time-consuming pursuit of perfection permission to know when good enough is good enough and make the decision to move on.

The Magic of Goodwill in Decision-Making

This past week, I needed to find a part for a 29-year-old boiler in one of my rental properties. After searching the web for a couple of hours, I decided to make a few phone calls since the part was nowhere to be found on-line. By chance, the first number I called was to parts4heating.com. A young lady named Jessica answered the phone in a delightful manner. I explained the situation and she asked for the model number and a couple of other specifics. Then she said, “You know, this is going to take some time. Why don’t you give me your phone number and I’ll do some research and call you back.” I did so and we hung up.

Over the next four hours, she called me two more times asking for additional information, each time in a friendly and enthusiastic way. “We’re going to find this part,” she insisted.

Finally, she called back one more time. “I am so sorry,” she said. “This part is nowhere to be found. I’ve tried three other distributors, the web, and asked the manufacturer. I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t think it’s available.”

I told her I knew it was a longshot going in and that I was amazed at how hard she tried especially because there was probably going to be nothing in it for her. She laughed and said, “Oh, I do that for everyone. Maybe one of these days you’ll call me back and we’ll do business then.” How positively refreshing!

Sadly, we have become a world of mostly detached and impersonal interactions. This means we make most decisions based on what’s in it for us. Granted, that is human nature. But what if we each became more like Jessica — Going the extra mile without being asked and taking time to boost the other person’s spirits?

Occasionally, I come across another person like Jessica, whether it is personally or professionally. When I do, I treasure that relationship. It has been my experience that the best decision-makers with whom I come in contact behave like Jessica, regardless of their station in life. In spite of today’s emphasis on “me, me, me,” what goes around – comes around still holds true.

Managing a Boss Who Makes YOUR Decisions

Casey, a young colleague of mine, complained recently that her supervisor continually makes decisions about issues he has delegated to her. This is includes such things as spending her budget and forgetting to tell her and making commitments on her time and letting her know after it’s already be scheduled.

Since this supervisor held her position immediately before being promoted, he knows it inside and out. As a result, it is second nature for him to simply act, rather than taking the time to nurture her development. Besides, many colleagues still think of him as being in that role. So, they still go to him with their issues. Being a new professional, she reasonably assumed that he would act in a logical manner. If he delegated a task, shouldn’t he let her complete it? Unfortunately, that is not happening in this case.

Casey is getting an uncomfortable dose of reality about one of the vagaries of management – the boss who doesn’t let go. This type of scenario is not confined to entry-level jobs, of course. It can happen at all levels. It just gets more nuanced further up within the organization.

Sadly, I’ve heard this story too many times. The incidence of less-than-consistent supervision pervades lots of organizations. As a result, we sometimes break the spirit of enthusiastic newcomers. If this happens enough, these emerging contributors develop a jaded sense about supervision in general. Over time, this becomes very costly if not addressed through effective management training and coaching.

Like you, I feel for Casey. We have all had to navigate at least one manager and their inconsistent ways. So, here’s what I suggested. See if you agree.

Begin by taking a breath. Casey needs to be careful not to let her frustration overtake her perspective. No one likes to have their authority undercut or circumvented, especially when it comes to scheduling and budget. That said, this is an evolving relationship. Since her supervisor held her position just prior to being promoted, she needs to accept that there will be difficulties like this until they reach an understanding about boundaries.

Have some empathy. Since he was recently promoted from her position, this makes him a new supervisor. As much as she is stretching to learn her position, he is stretching to learn how to be a boss. Those new to supervision sometimes lapse back into doing the job they were comfortable with. Why? Because it provides a sense of comfort and security. Unfortunately, it also gets in the way of establishing the parameters necessary for a healthy supervisory relationship. If Casey is patient, much of this issue will probably subside as her boss gets busy with his new responsibilities.

Define the specific issues needing to be resolved. Casey will need to prioritize her concerns. She’s not going to be able to “fix” her supervisor. These issues are best handled one at a time. If she marches into his office with a list of concerns, it won’t go well. She needs to choose her battles. Which is more important right now, for instance, control over her personal schedule or control over her budget? If she is observant, by the way, she can learn about how to manipulate the budget, something she probably has little experience with.

Develop an approach that is supervisor-centered. While Casey is the one with the issues, she is asking her supervisor to change his ways. This is not something easily accomplished. We are all a product of our habits and routines. She’s going to have to convince him that these changes will be for his own good. It will save him time. It will reduce his heartburn. It will provide opportunities for him to establish better relationships with the other people he supervises. It will also make him look good when his boss sees that Casey is thriving in her job independently.

Keep your eye on the bigger picture. This is the first of what will be many supervisory relationships Casey will experience. Each one is a learning experience. Patience can be in short supply among new professionals anxious to make a difference. The best leaders and decision-makers discover that preparing well, anticipating others moves, and supporting their bosses priorities is the best way to navigate organizational culture and advance their own careers. Casey can either embrace this or resist it. Hopefully, she will embrace it.

What do you think? Is my advice on target? What would you add? What would you modify? I, and she, would like to know. Comment on the post or e-mail me at bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net.

Managing Decision Fatigue: Sources – Symptoms – Solutions

You probably know the feeling – it’s mid-afternoon and you’re just tired of thinking. Or maybe you’re in the middle of a meeting and you’re beginning to zone out. Perhaps you’re in the sixth virtual conversation of the day and you’re paying more attention to everyone’s background than you are to the decisions being discussed. Maybe you’re in the supermarket staring at the toothpaste and wondering why all these choices are necessary.

Decision fatigue has become the new drain on today’s daily performance. Truth is, decision fatigue has always been around because it is the result of what happens when glucose levels in the brain become depleted. But in recent years, the impact of this mental drain has become so much more intense because of the number of decisions we are compelled to make every waking minute.

Can you can you successfully manage the decision fatigue draining your energy and impairing your thinking?  Yes! To do so, however, it helps to examine both the sources and symptoms first. Only then can we discuss solutions. Allow me to do so using a three-step framework: Sources – Symptoms – Solutions.

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Every time you make a decision, your brain consumes a bit of the blood glucose (sugar energy) produced by the body from the foods you eat. Deciding whether to turn left or right in the parking lot consumes little glucose. Analyzing data and producing a report consumes a lot more. This is why you feel drained after doing so. It’s also why you shouldn’t make significant purchasing decisions after focusing on an important task. Your brain won’t have the glucose energy to maintain proper focus to make a disciplined choice. The sources of decision fatigue fall into five categories:

First, there is work, which is composed of all the decisions you make during the day. This includes everything from significant choices to nuisance decisions such as navigating phone menus, clicking out of browser pop-ups, declining “convenience” options built into software applications and endless updates that developers promise will improve our user experience. (yeah, right!) On top of this, the pace of work, for many, has become more pressure-filled because of our 24/7/365 society. The same is true because of globalization and the endless demands for instant outcomes. Mix in the general competition for attention from social media and other forms of digital messaging and the brain has trouble processing this constant procession of decisions, both large and small.

Second, there are consumer sources. This consists of everything you buy, from food and personal care products to Netflix packages, apparel, big screen TVs and the car or truck you drive. Frankly, it’s business’ job to sell you the products and separate you from your money. The number of ways they attempt to do this, however, has exploded over the past few years. Research indicates that consumers don’t like too many choices, but it also shows people buy more when they’re confused. This is why your head hurts when attempting to purchase complex items like a cable subscription.

Third, there is social media. This includes all the platforms most of us use daily to connect with each other and keep up on what they have to say. These applications have become such an integral part of life for so many, they deserve their own category. Millions have been invested in making sure that users remain continually engaged, whether it is the never-ending scroll feature or the continual pop-ups that offer assistance, advertisements or the diversions we have come to know as click-bait. Add to this a design that ensures you will never see the same page display a second time, and these companies have created billions of users afraid to close the app. Each one of these sessions, of course, includes hundreds of decisions about what to read, what to click, and how to respond.

Fourth, there is news and entertainment. These have blended together so much that they really fall into the same category. As much as entertainment should be a source of relaxation, research has shown that the overwhelming number of choices confuses viewers resulting a sort of mental surrender for many. When it comes to news, it is important to remember that CNN, FOX, print media and the others are NOT in the business of keeping us informed. They are in the business of making money. Hence, the long-time industry motto, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Bad news, polarization and stories with manipulated narratives stress readers and viewers resulting in decision fatigue. At the same time, there is a sense of being left out if you don’t keep up.

Finally, there’s You and Others, or relationships. This category includes family, friends, colleagues and everyone else with whom you relate on a regular basis. Each of these relationships requires its own set of decisions based on how you interact, along with past experience. Each one of these decisions requires the brain to consider dozens of factors, consuming boatloads of glucose, especially for those relationships you find more challenging. Just as a large report or presentation can consume a lot of sugar energy, the same is true with the lengthy or intense conversations you have with one or more people over a beer. At the end, you feel tired of thinking because your brain has had to pay attention while developing what to say in response, based on your past experience with these individuals.

As mentioned before, many of these decisions have been a part of life since the dawn of time. But in recent years we have added social media, the options that come with menu-driven software, and an explosion of consumer choices in pretty much every product category. According to research from Roberts Wesleyan College, adults are now making an average of 35,000 decisions per day. As a result, there are five symptoms that hinder our thinking and impair our daily performance.

The Symptoms of Decision Fatigue

First, there is continuous partial attention, which forces our minds to constantly dart back and forth from micro-decision to micro-decision, each one costing us a bit of glucose energy. This darting becomes cumulative over time and the reason why we wonder what happened to the productivity of the day. Have you ever said to yourself, “I know I made a lot of decisions, but I didn’t really accomplish anything?” When the brain is not given a change to replenish itself, glucose levels become so depleted that you can actually feel your thinking shutting down.

Safe Decision Syndrome is the fear of making any decision that might result in a mistake, an unfortunate outcome, or perhaps correction or discipline by a supervisor. With the number of decisions we are required to make these days, the possibility of this happening has gone way up. Those who have been “burned” by one or more of these situations become overly cautious about making any decision that is even tinged with uncertainty. Most times, they just stop unless they have explicit permission to act.

Third, there is menu-driven thinking, which is an over-dependence on digital cues. The advent of computer software has brought with it increasingly sophisticated ways of guiding, some would say manipulating, our thinking and choices.  Whether it is telephone menus, airline reservation sites, or the screen in your car’s dashboard, we are thinking less and being led more. Some might argue that menu-driven thinking reduces the need to think, thereby saving mental energy. The price of this, however, is a deficit in creative and critical thinking especially among many of those coming of age in this digital society. When they are compelled to make decisions with an uncertain outcome, the associated stress of doing so consumes a tremendous amount of glucose.

Fourth, there is the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). This has become a juggernaut in both social media and marketing. The fact that a sizeable number of people interrupt their sleep to check their mobile devices illustrates the way FOMO has become a major factor in fostering decision fatigue. As with any other digital interaction, the fear of missing out requires dozens of decisions throughout the day, each one consuming a bit of the blood glucose so essential for attention and concentration.

Finally, there is the sense of manipulation we develop when we feel like we’re being led to a particular outcome, even though we’re being told we have complete control. Sadly, this has become pervasive throughout society because of digital technology. As a result, we expend more blood glucose trying to game the systems that are trying to maneuver us into pre-ordained choices. Having to anticipate these processes for even simple purchases or decisions draws our focus and energy away for more significant issues. Feeling like you’re settling or surrendering results in an underlying sense of distrust in all these systems.

The Solutions to Decision Fatigue

Over the past several years, I’ve identified more than 30 strategies for battling decision fatigue and continue to discover more as I interview effective decision-makers. Here are three to get you started.

First, begin each day with something that will you give a sense of completion. Admiral William McRaven has become known for his ten rules learned during Navy Seal training. The first of these is “make your bed,” a simple task but a good way to start the day. For me, it’s posting an inspiring thought on Linked-In. Others with whom I have spoken have a ritual that helps center their thinking before diving into what needs to be done. What do you do every morning to top off your energy before commencing the work at hand?

Second, work at eliminating unnecessary decisions. I spoke to an executive who told me of assuming the leadership of a manufacturing plant. Being a first-time plant manager, he dutifully studied all the reports that arrived in his in-box, sometimes late into the night. But one day it dawned on him that no one ever asked about these reports. He started asking those generating them about their purpose. He was told that his predecessor was a “numbers guy” and couldn’t seem to get enough data to analyze. So, this manager sat down one morning considered the value of each report. Then he eliminated all but two, saving him a couple of hours of work a week. Effective decision-makers are constantly looking for ways to consolidate, delegate or eliminate decisions for both themselves and those with whom they work. How about you?

Finally, chunk your time. I’ve interviewed several executives who divide their time into 15- or 30-minute segments. Then they assign the decisions they need to make to those segments. This is especially useful if their days is filled with requests from others. Not only does it compel those asking the questions to better organize their time, it forces the decision-maker to act, rather allowing the issue to drag on or be postponed. Even if you cannot do this for the entire day, simply dedicating time chucks every morning or afternoon will enable you to focus without the endless distractions. Don’t worry. The people around you will get used to it. If you have a boss that wants you available at every whim, sell him or her on how you can get more done if you compartmentalize some of your time.

When battling decision fatigue, the goal is NOT to better manage the 35,000 decisions we might face every day. It is to REDUCE the number of decisions we make. In other words, fewer decisions equals less blood glucose consumed. This leaves more sugar energy for focus on the most important issues.

Do Beliefs Inform Behavior?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend reminded me of the old saying “beliefs inform behavior.” Everyone reading this post has heard this adage, or something similar. While we mostly invoke it when considering our outlook and perspective, it is critical for supervisors to consider it as well.

In managing people in a variety of settings over the past 35 years, I’ve always found it fascinating how different people respond differently to identical instructions. Some just put in their time and the absolute minimum effort. Others put everything they’ve got into the task, regardless of what’s involved. Then there’s the bunch that fall somewhere in between.

If you’re a seasoned manager, you’re probably thinking, “All of this is common sense.” Maybe, but how much do you use these insights to inform the way you supervise people?  Here are a few suggestions, based on my experience and those of others I’ve observed over the past three decades.

First, find ways to assess work ethic. The longer I study management and supervision, the more I am convinced that everything starts with selection. If you are not placing candidates in a situation where they are compelled to demonstrate their skills, work ethic, and creativity you’re only getting half the picture. You can’t change someone else’s work ethic. So if they don’t have it to begin with, don’t hire them, no matter how much you’re tempted. If you already have an existing team, consider what seems to motivate each individual. Even those who count the minutes on Friday afternoons are engaged by certain things. You just have to find out what they are.

Second, ask people what they think. I read Jon Huntsman’s autobiography recently. Over the past 40 years, he and his team have built the second largest chemicals and plastics producer in the world. Time and again, he mentions that the key to acquiring and turning around failing chemical plants has been to ask the people working there how to improve the company’s functions. When was the last time you asked your employees how to improve things and incorporated those suggestions?

Third, offer opportunities your people will find engaging. Once a skill or routine has been mastered it becomes repetitive, regardless of its complexity. Even the most devoted employee will grow bored with day-to-day tasks. The formula is sadly familiar: Boredom informs belief. Belief informs behavior. Whether you provide cross-training, release time for new research, industry association involvement, or some other activity, consider what can you do to reinvigorate solid performers who feel locked into a dead-end routine?

With the turnover of each employee costing tens of thousands of dollars these days, paying attention to belief and outlook is an essential element of supervision.

Knowledge is Not Power If You Don’t Share It

The phrase, “knowledge is power” is commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon in the 1600’s. Regardless of its origin, some people interpret this statement as an entreatment to collect information for the purposes of building control and influence. After all, if you know it and someone else doesn’t, you have the power.

The best decision-makers recognize, however, that there is a critical corollary to this principle; You cannot leverage this knowledge if you do not share it. Leaders who keep secrets unreasonably, make those they lead suspicious of their motives. Managers who refuse to empower others with reasonable authority, engender resentment, distrust and employee turnover. The same thing is true of researchers, policymakers, and anyone else who trades in the currency of knowledge. Those who openly share their knowledge, with proper discretion of course, enjoy the trust and support of those around them. When challenging times arise, it is these people who rush to aid the decision-makers making tough choices.

Granted, the journey to this philosophy can be uncomfortable. First, there is our natural tendency to want to hold on to something once you’ve got it, whether this is property or influence over others. Then there’s the issue of trust. Will those with whom you share the knowledge use it appropriately and help you achieve your goals and objectives?  Finally, there is the discomfort fostered by the establishment of a new habit or practice. It’s just so much easier to remain in your comfort zone and do what you’ve always done. This is true, by the way, whether you’re a front-line supervisor or senior executive.

But no has one ever achieved the levels of success and influence society applauds by hoarding knowledge. So, how do you go about making this transition?

Observe and learn from those who do so. Consider the best decision-makers you know. How do they disseminate their knowledge and information? With whom do they share it? On what basis do they make these choices? If you don’t know, ask them. The best thinkers are usually happy to share their strategies. That’s how they developed their skills and insights. To open the conversation, you might say something like, “I’ve admired how you seem to use your knowledge to lead others. Might I buy you a cup of coffee sometime to find out how you do it?”

Decide what will be most helpful to share. Consider the knowledge you use to do your job. Who might benefit from knowing it as well? Sharing your knowledge allows you to delegate tasks, thereby saving you time and allowing you opportunity to learn new things and make new connections. It’s been said many times that the only way one moves up within an organization is to find a suitable replacement for your present position. The only way you can do this is by sharing your knowledge. Besides, if you covet information, people will eventually find ways to work around you. You don’t have to be an open book, by the way. In fact, oversharing can send the wrong message.

Begin incrementally. As I mentioned above, adopting this approach can be uncomfortable. You might be nagged by the thought that you’re giving your power away to others. Start by assigning the little tasks you should not be doing anyway. Train the appropriate person on how to perform the task. Then empower them by saying something like, “This task is yours now. Make your own decisions. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, but I am expecting you to make it your own.” If it is a considerable task, they might be uncomfortable at first. But if you persist in empowering them, they will embrace the authority.

Leveraging knowledge is how the best decision-makers empower others, leverage their time, enhance their personal power and achieve their goals. What can you do to implement the three strategies above to leverage your knowledge?

Making Decisions When the Boss Won’t Share

I was chatting with a woman during a seminar break. “All of what you’re saying sounds great,” she said. “But my boss provides information on a need-to-know basis. I don’t know if he’s insecure or doesn’t trust me. I just spend lots of time asking for what I need to know rather than him giving me all the details at the beginning. I feel like I’m playing Mother-May-I all the time and it’s irritating as hell.”

I’ve dealt with this question any number of times. I’ve also been a victim of it. I suspect she’s right. Most of this information hoarding comes from one or two sources, insecurity or a lack of trust. Regardless of its origin, it saps productivity and fosters employee turnover. After all, who would want to work in that type of environment?

Given clear direction and the necessary information, most employees can complete assignments and make decisions without asking endless questions. After a while, they come to understand their supervisor’s style. They discover the boundaries of their authority and how decisions are typically made within the organization.

Sometimes, however, a task is delegated without the necessary information or resources. I have found this is especially true when it comes to budgets. This is the boss who assigns a task but requires the person performing it to ask for approval for even the smallest amount. Solution? Ask the boss what your spending authority is. Even the most tight-fisted or insecure boss will be compelled to give a number. If they don’t, they know it will make them look controlling or distrustful.

If, over time, that spending authority turns out to be too limited, the person performing the task can always go back and ask that it be increased. The best way to do this is by pointing out the number of times the boss has had to be interrupted to give an approval. If this becomes a nuisance for the boss, he or she might even increase it without being asked.

Another flavor of this are the bosses who delegate tasks or authority, but then interfere. They make commitments without informing the person they have delegated the responsibility to. They spend money without letting this person know. Sometimes they show up at meetings where they aren’t needed and undercut this person’s authority simply by being present. Solution? Begin with the words, “I’m having trouble.” You might say, “I’m having trouble completing the project because I’m not sure who you’ve made commitments to.” Or you might say, “I’m having trouble staying on top of my budget because I don’t know what you’ve spent.” Then follow up by saying something like, “Can you help me find a way to make sure we’re on the same page?”

No one feels comfortable challenging or trying to correct the boss. Using the phrase, “I having trouble” is a diplomatic way of saying, “Please help me by getting out of the way.” You may find this difficult the first couple of times you do it. So plan out your approach and rehearse it out loud with someone you trust. In essence, you are managing your boss and that’s okay. At one time or another, all bosses need to be managed.

Finally, there is the boss who wants to be in on every decision. This can be the most maddening since it telegraphs distrust even if it isn’t. The boss may be simply curious. But that’s not how it comes across to the employee. Solution? Say, “I’m a bit confused about how far my authority extends.” Typically, the boss will say something like, “Tell me more” in response. That opens the door for you to provide three or four specific examples where you felt reluctant to make the decision since your boss was in the room.

Once again, approaching the boss in this manner requires some planning, rehearsal and confidence. Consider the different ways the boss might react and prepare for them as well. All of this takes some effort. But the alternative is to remain this decision purgatory and no one wants to do that.

Have other dilemmas like this? Send me an e-mail at bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net. I’d be happy to help.

 

 

 

At What Point Does Digital Technology Harm Employee Development?

A recent article in Vertical Distinct describes how Amazon.com uses digital technology to regulate its workplaces. The company has come under scrutiny a number of times because of its hyper-focus on improving productivity. It is understandable that productivity would be a focus in an environment filled with repetitive and monotonous tasks. At what point, however, does this focus become counterproductive? More globally, what impact do these practices have on the development of decision making and critical thinking skills among those who work for the company?

Amazon currently employs 850,000 people in the US and throughout the world. The vast majority of these individuals will move on to work at other firms over time. So, what happens if Amazon’s hyper-focus on productivity on prevents these employees from honing the skills essential to thinking independently in future work environments?

Imagine hiring a twenty-something who has spent the first five years of his working life in an Amazon distribution center where his every step and action is programmed and regulated. If you ask him to think for himself, he may not know what that looks like. Will he have developed the workplace problem solving skills one might assume of someone in their twenties? Multiply this challenge several million-fold over time and you begin to see the significance of the dilemma.

Firms hiring Amazon alumni would be wise to consider this fact during selection. No firm wants to spend extra resources teaching basic thinking skills and workplace resourcefulness. Amazon is not solely responsible for this phenomenon, of course. But as goes one of a nation’s business leaders, others are sure to follow.

Sadly, this phenomenon contributes to the learned helplessness we are already complaining about in society. Learned helplessness is fostered by three factors that have combined to create a sense of personal dependence rather than personal resourcefulness. First, there is menu-driven thinking or the over-dependence on digital menus and technology. Regardless of age and experience, we are all manipulated by these systems. This is especially true for digital natives.

Second there is the belief that everyone is entitled to success as they define it. An example of this are “trophy kids, along with educators and others who believe we shouldn’t keep score during games because the loser may have their feelings hurt. Third are the enabling managers who answer endless questions, rather than compelling their people to develop the critical thinking skills to “figure it out” independently. Effective decision skills evolve over time as life’s obstacles are confronted and overcome. Much of this takes place on the job.

Some managers reading this might argue, “My job is not to teach critical thinking skills. My job is to get the most out the people I supervise.” While this feeling is understandable, one must wonder where the threshold lies between productivity and workforce development as a responsibility to both workers and the marketplace in general.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? No. Rather than a solution, there is more likely to be an on-going tension between the desire for productivity and profit and responsibility to the greater good. There are, of course, consequences if there becomes an imbalance in this tension. If too much focus is placed on productivity and the bottom line, employers will experience high turnover and heightened tension between management and those it employs. (We have recently witnessed a bit of this at Amazon.) If the focus is placed too much on employee development, then productivity and profits may be impacted.

What are your thoughts on this conundrum? I would like to know and so would others. Post your comments below or send me an email to bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net.