by Ron Ashkenas
When a company’s planning and decision-making process involves a lot of meetings, discussions, committees, PowerPoint decks, emails, and announcements, but very few hard-and-fast agreements, I call that “decision spin”. Decisions bounce around the company, from group to group, up and down the hierarchy and across the matrix, their details and consequences changing as different stakeholders weigh in. Often, the underlying problem isn’t an inability to make decisions – it’s a tendency to avoid conflict.
Decision spin doesn’t prevent decisions from being made altogether. But they often don’t stick, because people hesitate to express their disagreements during the discussion. There is a lot of head nodding, smiling, and camaraderie — which is undermined later when participants don’t follow through on the decisions that they didn’t really buy into.
Decision spin can be incredibly frustrating at all levels of the organization. It also has a huge impact on cost, productivity, and customer service. For example, when managers at one company I worked with couldn’t agree on the best way (or the few best ways) to configure their sales management software, they ended up with dozens of variations, which not only increased licensing fees, but also made it much more difficult to coordinate sales across divisional or geographic lines. Similarly, when another company needed to reduce its expenses, the pain was spread like peanut butter across the different cost centers because the senior management team couldn’t reach a decision about where to focus — which meant that areas with growth potential lost as much muscle as those with less opportunity.
From the outside, of course, this kind of behavior looks silly. Why can’t managers — even at a very senior level — have open, honest and candid debates, work through their differences, and then reach agreement? That’s what they’re paid to do. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, for two reasons:
One is that managers are people and have a very human desire to be liked. They want others to think well of them and not feel that they’re difficult to work with. They want to get along and seem like team players. So even when they disagree with something, they often hold back on expressing it too vociferously so as not to get into a fight. In fact, many managers I’ve talked to are afraid that disagreements might turn into uncomfortable battles that will damage or destabilize relationships. So they unconsciously pull their punches to keep things calm.
The second reason for avoiding conflict is that many managers lack the skills to engage in it constructively. Perhaps because of the psychological issues described above, these managers don’t get a lot of practice at conflict, or they’ve never been trained in conflict management. As a result, they miss some of the basic principles and tools necessary to engage in positive conflict, such as defining the overarching goal to be achieved, identifying common ground, focusing on the problem instead of the person, objectively listing points of agreement and disagreement, listening more than talking, and shifting from debating to problem-solving. While none of these principles are rocket science, they’re also not necessarily skills that everyone is born with. And in the absence of these skills, it’s easy for business conflicts and disagreements to quickly escalate into interpersonal tensions — which triggers the avoidance syndrome described above, and a continuation of decision spin.
Breaking this kind of cycle is not easy, particularly if it’s deeply engrained in the culture of your company, and in the emotional makeup of key senior leaders. However, if you want to address it — from wherever you are in the organization — here are two steps that you can take:
First, convene your team, or a group of colleagues, and talk about whether decision spin is an issue. If it is, discuss some real examples, how they played out, and the consequences for the company. Consider whether these are isolated instances or part of a recurring pattern, and what the payoff might be to reduce some of the spin. The key here is to avoid abstractions and build some awareness and alignment about the need to make improvements.
Once you’re in agreement that decision spin is worth attacking, work with your team or your colleagues to develop some ground rules for constructive conflict. These might include giving everyone two minutes to share his or her views; appointing someone to write down pros and cons of an issue; reminding everyone that disagreements are not personal attacks; setting a time limit for debates; or agreeing that decisions don’t get changed unilaterally. Obviously, this is not the same as full-blown conflict management training, but it’s a way to get started — and if you experience some success, it could create the readiness for additional developmental work.
Companies can’t afford to let decisions spin around with no resolution. Shortening that cycle, however, requires managers to understand that conflict should be embraced, rather than avoided.