Understand the role of power, decision-making and trust

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

The easiest way to assess the managerial philosophy of an organization is to develop an understanding of how the organization makes decisions.

In an earlier article, we discussed the four major types of decision-making: authoritarian, authoritative, consultative and consensual, and noted that managers should have all four in their repertories.

Each is applicable to a different kind of situation. Authoritarian for emergencies, authoritative for situations where increasing the skill and knowledge of workers is essential, consultative when the goal is to engage people in the process of work and consensual when the goal is spread the decision deeper into the organization.

Trust is another essential ingredient to the optimal functioning of a company.  Executives and managers must trust each other or communication breaks down. Workers throughout the organization must trust their leaders, especially their immediate manager, or they will not give their best performance on a daily basis. Customers must trust the company or they will not buy the organizations products and services.

One definition of leadership is to understand and use power wisely. However, thinking about power is troubling because it is difficult to define just what power is in a positive fashion. Certainly, the use of power is obvious in a reduction in force, a pay freeze or the separation of an employee. But these examples only provide specific situations where the results are generally negative. Perhaps such easily recalled examples are the reason discussions of power are difficult.

Weaving the concepts of power, decision-making and trust together, we can understand how executives and managers can exercise power wisely to build trust within the organization.  The key to this understanding is an in-depth knowledge of decision-making and the experience to make good decisions about how to make decisions.

It is reasonable to define the management of people as having two major components: communication and decision-making. Decision-making is a specific example of communication.  Nothing communicates more quickly or emotionally than a negative decision that affects a large number of people within an organization. Perhaps this is the reason that the causal relationship between decision-making and trust is not better examined and understood.

Decision-making is the most visible example of the use of power in an organization and understanding decision-making can be an important way to understand how to use the power of a managerial or executive position to build or destroy trust.

In authoritarian decisions, all the power rests in the hands of the decider. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. An example of this is the newly promoted manager who is burning to make changes and is hurrying to use her newly minted decision-making authority to solve problems she has been looking at for some time. Or consider the often-noted micro-manager who becomes involved in decision-making at a level of detail that infuriates workers by making them feel stupid. In both cases, good intentions to change situations for the better have opposite effects and become trust busters. The core problem in these situations is the managers’ lack of understanding of using power wisely and the absence of some form of counter-control within the system, there is too often no safe way for people to push-back to influence the behavior of the manager.

Consider the contrasting effect in the unwise use of consensual decision-making.  In this instance the manager inappropriately hands off the authority for decisions to a person or group, and the decision essentially runs off the rails by becoming authoritarian, which seems to be the default position for people unschooled in the types of decision-making. An inappropriate decision badly made has to be reversed, often by someone above the manager who made the hand-off thus creating negative effects in all three parties directly involved in the decision. In this situation, the decision-making power was diffused is a manner that set the stage for problems to develop.

Executive function is the clear definition of who has what responsibility for decision- making. It acknowledges that when individuals have such authority, there is less likelihood of problems developing, particularly if the person is knowledgeable and experienced about decision types. It also recognizes that group decision-making is subject to forces that are sometimes difficult to understand and address.

Interestingly enough, when conversant with the decision-making continuum, most people recognize the risks of over-using authoritarian and consensual decision-making and intuitively understand that building a successful authoritative style is a necessary condition to moving to consultative decision-making and employee engagement.

Clearly, the performance of organizations can be enhanced by assuring that key people thoroughly understand how thoughtful decision-making can be a powerful trust builder.

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.