In Defense of Bad Decisions

Most everyone has an anecdote from early in their career that sticks with them.  The nugget that grew into a gem of wisdom over time.  Mine was delivered by my boss, in my first ‘real’ job after graduating university.

I had talked myself into a permanent role with a large, municipal utilities company undergoing privatization.  We were also in the midst of a huge physical move: constructing a large facility to house nearly all staff, the entire fleet and all equipment. I worked for John, the man overseeing the new build, as well as being responsible for the 200+ vehicle fleet and a few dozen substations throughout the city. I did not know a thing about this world -- I graduated with a degree in Criminology and worked at a stationery store throughout school!

The pace was steady through the construction phase, with countless contractors and inspectors requiring access to the new site.  I quickly learned the building like the back of my hand – he location of all the labs, the HVAC/boiler rooms, the dangerous goods storage facilities.  My boss and I were attached by a two-way radio most days, but on occasion he would be unavailable.  And some days we had real emergencies to deal with: exploding transformers, downed power lines, accidents, storms. Despite my complete lack of experience he gave me the advice that would empower me personally and professionally, and would also prove to be a great leadership instrument down the road.

I don’t care if it is a good decision or a bad decision, but I need you to make a decision.

He indicated that there would be times when a decision was required and he would not be there to make them.  John then said “We won’t let things grind to a halt if I am not here. I don’t care if it is a good decision or a bad decision, but I need you to make a decision.  I will back you up if it is the wrong one.”

See what just happened there?  I went from enjoying my first full-time gig and cashing a steady paycheck to being a fully engaged team member.  I was trusted to make decisions in John’s absence.  No – I was expected to make decisions in his absence. There was no burying my head in the sand or shrugging it off as someone else’s job.  And if I made the wrong call, he was going to stick his neck out for me.  Picturing that encouraged me to try my hardest to make the best choices possible.  I did not want this person whom I respected so highly to have to take any flack for my inexperience. I also learned to identify the situations where making no decision was worse than making an incorrect one.  

  Now you might be thinking – hey, wait a minute, there is no way you were ever going to get in trouble for not making a decision or making a bad one when you were the junior most person there!  You’d be right, of course.  But I was fresh out of school and had no idea that was the case. The advice John gave me was not intended to shift responsibility away from himself, it was a gift that kept giving.

As a leader, having one of my team members make a bad decision opens up an amazing coaching opportunity.  

I have passed on the same advice, understanding that I will never put someone out on a limb if I am not prepared to back them up.  Encouraging employees to be decision-makers is empowering, drives engagement and builds a strong team.  As a leader, having one of my team members make a bad decision opens up an amazing coaching opportunity.  

A bad decision is an chance to examine the thought process behind that choice. You gain fantastic insight into the way your employees think.  Walk through it with them. Maybe the outcome wasn’t ideal but the logic used is applicable for a different scenario.  If handled with care, these conversations allow for mutual exploration of critical thought.  Your team can safely grow more confident in their ability, and you can explain why you make the decisions you do – yes, that means being accountable yourself.  

The upsides of empowering your team early on include identifying if decision making is a strength or weakness.  Do they panic when required to make an independent choice?  Are they growing more comfortable with decision making?  Do they make the right choices but express dismay at having to be the decision-maker?  Discovering the answers to those questions early on through experience can lead to valuable professional and personal insights. 

...he considered himself a successful leader if his boss did not know he was away on vacation.

One last quotable moment from John. He said that he considered himself a successful leader if his boss did not know when he was away on vacation.  He understood that ensuring the business kept running, that everyone on his team knew what had to be done and were capable of making the decisions necessary to keep things running smoothly in his absence was something to aspire to as a leader. 

It became clear to me later on just how closely tied those two pieces of advice really are.