Think like a boss

James GandolfiniMy team does Product development for 16 websites on 2 different platforms. We create roadmaps and prioritize work across more than 6 teams. We generate lots of new projects, and we have a process for vetting new ideas that come from all across the company. We work cross-functionally, with multiple technology and business teams. And we own our products from soup to nuts, development to support, build to run.

Each month, we prioritize new requests with the guidance of our senior executives, which means we tell them what our priorities are and they tell us if they disagree. Since we know the customers, the work required, the risk involved, the business value, and the product roadmaps better than anyone, we know what work needs to happen. Do our Execs weigh in? Absolutely. Do they have different opinions than ours? Occasionally. Do they change our priorities? Rarely.

Having strong, well-reasoned opinions about what work should be prioritized, delivering on our commitments, and showing real business value has helped our team gain the trust and confidence of our Executive leadership. They expect us to be the experts, and we respond by acting like it.

You probably know a lot more than your boss

In 95% of the work situations you will ever find yourself in, your boss doesn’t know any more than you do. In 75% of those situations, you know more than your boss does. In 50% of those situations, you know much, much more. I’m making up the numbers, but you get the idea.

And yet, many employees feel completely unable to make a decision without their boss’s input. Why?

We don’t want to make mistakes

For lots of people, it’s natural to avoid making decisions, just as it’s natural to avoid taking responsibility. Making decisions is scary, because it means being wrong a lot. I worked at a small company where the CEO ruled by fear, where being wrong was something to avoid at all costs. I didn’t last there very long.

At a company where employees are punished for being wrong, the best employees will leave or be fired (as I was). Those who stay are those who are good at playing the game – avoiding responsibility, asking their boss to make decisions for them. Are those the people you want to work with?

We’ve forgotten how to make decisions

Have you ever heard the comment “those decisions are made above my pay grade”? Those are the words of someone who lacks ideas, conviction, or confidence.

There can be good reasons for this kind of thinking. Command-and-control-based companies train employees that different decisions are made at different levels, and that there’s no upside to disagreeing with your boss. If your company’s beating you down, it might be time to find another one.

My old boss used to say “an opinion’s worth 50 IQ points.” At least.

We want help

Maybe the issue is simply a desire to get help, or to have a sounding board. This is totally valid – and very healthy. Help is important, and we could all use a little bit once in a while. I know I can.

We need more information

Sometimes we need more information to make a solid decision – there are times when my boss has a critical piece of information, and I’d be foolish not to ask for it. It comes down to this:

  • If you’re not making a decision because you need more information or want some help, that’s a good thing.
  • If you’re not making a decision because you lack the confidence or conviction to get it done, that’s less good.

The trick is to know the difference.

Creating the culture we want

As leaders, we need to figure out what we value in our employees and co-workers, and then create a culture that supports our values. If we value confidence, creativity, leadership, and risk-taking, we need to:

  • Empower our people to make decisions
  • Encourage risk taking
  • Seek out contrasting points of view
  • Promote healthy debate
  • Outlaw terms like “this decision is made above my pay grade”
  • Ask questions

Most importantly, we need to expect people to make mistakes, and we need to let them know it’s okay – in our actions and in our words. Then we need to remind them, over and over again. We need to believe that making mistakes is a critical part of becoming a better team and company. And we need to be willing to make some of our own.

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