Among leaders, integrative trumps decisive

In 1859, the Brit Thomas Austin released 24 wild rabbits that he had brought to Australia, assuming that “the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” A subsequent rabbit population explosion led to a significant species loss and serious erosion problems that plagued the continent for almost 100 years.

In 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 was disabled, right after take off from New York’s La Guardia Airport, after striking a flock of Canada geese. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s successfully executed an emergency water landing on the Hudson River, saving all of the 155 passengers and crew aboard.

Both Austin and Sullenberger are what we consider “decisive”. They made judgment calls quickly, firmly, and with little input from others. And as the previous examples illustrate, being decisive can be a vice or a virtue. It all depends on the context. In times of a crisis we look for decisive action that gets us back into safe territory. Thankfully, 99 percent of the time in corporate reality we operate outside of that emergency zone.

In addition to a decisive approach, there are three more basic decision-making styles that we can resort to, hierarchic, flexible, and integrative:

According to a Korn Ferry study of 120,000 managers and executives, for the most successful group, decision-making styles changed over time: the more senior, the more they dropped the attachment to a hard-edged decisive style of leadership in favor of a more inclusive flexible and integrative approach.

McKinsey developed a comprehensive list of 20 distinct leadership skills and surveyed 189,000 people in 81 organizations globally to determine which ones are most closely related with leadership effectiveness[1]. “Seeking different perspectives” and paying attention to stakeholder concerns, was among the top four.

Despite of such overwhelming evidence, in our work with leaders we find that, far more often than not, they jump to conclusions prematurely, at times to the detriment of their and their team’s ability to maximize impact. And these are smart, educated individuals. Where does their bias towards “flying solo” and action come from?

Here are some of the more common thinking traps our executive clients have shared with us:

  • “Everything is urgent.”

Even if it is not a matter of “life or death”, many of us are quick to label a challenge as an emergency. And tight deadlines (real or perceived) raise a sense of urgency resulting in stress levels that limit our ability to think outside the box and solve problems effectively.

Organizations expect their leaders to be strong decision-makers for 40 hours per week. Executives report an average of 4 hours per week when they experience peak problem solving. In fact, 90 percent of us do our best thinking outside of work where we can escape the pressure of time[2] (ever noticed that when you jump into the shower your brain is “on creativity”?). Leaders who learn how to prioritize and block off time chunks in their calendars, however, have an edge over their peers when it comes to slowing down and thinking strategically at work.

  • ”I can trust my gut.”

Automatic judgments that stem from associations stored in memory are critical to survival. Decision-making becomes faster and simpler. However, we tend to be über-confident when it comes to knowing how the future will unfold based on our past experiences (aka “gut”). Have you ever gotten a scary medical prognosis? A study showed that even when doctors are completely certain about a diagnosis, they are wrong 40 percent of the time!

Our natural bias as humans is to give too much weight to the information that is right in front of us, rather than consider information that escapes the spotlight. As we move up through the corporate ranks, the farther away we get from the action. Keeping the information pipeline open and adding data to intuition, is key for not loosing touch with reality.

  • “Being decisive brings success.”

We live in a “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world that favors -at first glance- the person “who gets stuff done”. Being decisive is often used as a synonym for being effective. As Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino puts it: “It’s very difficult when you think you have the right answer not to put it out there.” In its extreme form, leaders become pulpit bullies à la Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Effective leaders balance their results orientation with empowering others. After all, what is leadership with no followers? Just imagine trying to score a goal in a soccer match without the support of a team. According to research[3], the top 20 percent of leaders have a sense of humility about their own relative power, welcome input, and invest time and energy to bring others along.

  • “I know best.”

Are you a genius like Stephen Hawking? Well, then, maybe…For us regular mortals, by working together, we can create more value than if we work individually. Yet, moving from being a sole contributor to managing people is one of the most challenging hurdles in an executive’s career.

Newly minted leaders are often reluctant to delegate as they lack confidence in other’s ability to deliver results. Or they may be uncertain on how to grow and develop their teams. For too long has it been their default mode to solve problems single-handedly. However, what got them here won’t get them there. As a result, many struggle. Adopting a growth mind set, one where we focus on learning and development (rather than fear of failure) as a leader, fosters a broader view of possibility.

There are a myriad of additional reasons why we default to quick decision-making. What are some of your triggers? As you think about your kind of work, how often do you have simple rules and a single solution for the problems you are looking to solve? And how might you benefit from sharing some of the weight on your shoulders and involve others in your thinking?

Asking questions, learning from those around us, is when we gain valuable insights that can inform our decisions. Bringing a mindset of inclusiveness to the table also communicates that as a leader we are sincerely interested in what those around her think and need – a strong motivational lever. If you are a leader, it is your responsibility to engage and inspire those around you. It’s in your job description.

[1] McKinsey Quarterly, January 2015
[2] Source: David Rock, NeuroLeadership Institute, in The Wall Street Journal
[3] Source: Kenneth R. Brousseau et al, The Seasoned Executive’s Decision-Making Style, Harvard Business Review