Skip to main content
monday morning manager

What would you find if you could compare the worst decision makers in business to those who show better judgment? What attributes distinguish those laggards from the rest?

It's an intriguing question with some helpful recent answers, thanks to Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. The two leadership development consultants at the helm of Utah-based Zenger Folkman dug into their database of 360-degree evaluations of about 50,000 managers. In those surveys, respondents are asked whether the individual makes good decisions. The consultants studied the 1 per cent of leaders at the bottom in decision-making scores and determined what distinguished them from the other 99 per cent.

In a Harvard Business Review blog posting, they singled out nine habits that seemed to get those decision makers in trouble. But in an interview, Mr. Zenger boiled it down to two overriding tendencies.

First, they tended to not have a process to follow when making decisions. They are scattershot, not thinking things through, leaping at easy answers. Second, they are less likely to use the organization's fundamental strategy as a touchstone for deciding – they lack a "compass," as he puts it. They may put their own unit's interests first or get caught up in temporary enthusiasms rather than the carefully thought-out long-term direction that has been set.

"No process and no compass," Mr. Zenger tersely sums it up.

The nine specific failings, in order of how often they showed up, are:

1. Laziness

These individuals may actually work hard but their approach to decision making is lazy, not checking out facts or assumptions. They don't seek extra options or consider whether some of the alternatives in front of them can be combined into a totally new path. "They take the easy way out," he said in the interview.

2. Not anticipating the unexpected

They don't consider what might happen if the decision they take unravels owing to unforeseen events, such as an economic trough or new competitor entering the market. Research shows most people are actually quite good when they take the time to consider unexpected events that could arise, but these managers are overly optimistic and don't consider untoward possibilities.

3. Indecisiveness

Mr. Zenger struggles at times in his own decision making between two choices that have attractive benefits, such as keeping costs down or having presentation materials that look super. But poor managers vacillate for too long, waiting for new information or ideas that never come – and, as a result, the decision is taken too late or not at all.

4. Remaining locked in the past

They cling to past practices and outdated assumptions. Mr. Zenger stresses that we all get caught up in past habits to some extent but the failed decision makers never seem to face the fact the world has changed.

5. Having no strategic alignment

The problems managers face must be considered in connection with the prevailing corporate strategy. The challenge for managers is to take the broad strategy and make it work in their unit. But these poor decision makers are aloof or apart from the strategy, as if on another planet.

6. Overdependence

Sometimes decisions are not made because one person is waiting for another who in turn is waiting for another. Collaboration may be great, but not when it clogs the system. And poor decision makers tend to be overly dependent on others.

7. Isolation

At the same time, these leaders too often lacked networks and were unable to reach out into the organization for assistance. Even more critically, they couldn't plunge downward into the hierarchy, getting advice and information from those closer to the action. Sometimes that was because of a lack of skills but at times it was because they wanted all the credit.

8. Lack of technical depth

Leaders can't be expected to know everything about the complicated technical issues they oversee. But these folks seemed to lack sufficient perspective to allow them to weigh the advice they were given on technical issues – they were out of their depth. In such a situation, it's easy to succumb to emotion, which can lead you astray.

9. Failure to communicate

Their subordinates lack proper understanding of the reasons for decisions and how they could best be implemented because the leaders didn't share the what, where, when, and how associated with it. The result was initiatives collapsing in the implementation phase.

In reading this list, some failings may leap out to you because they are bad habits you fall prey to. Those should be addressed. But more generally, Mr. Zenger says you need to keep the organizational strategy in mind when facing decisions and seek more options than first emerge and broader opinions to guide you.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter