How to help your employees make self-informed decisions (without you)

What does it mean that without a vision, the people perish? This phrase can be interpreted in several ways, though in the context of leadership it simply means that without a distinct vision people will meander without as hared direction or intention. Effective leaders constantly communicate a vision — on all levels. For people to honor your vision, of course, you need to equip them with the tools necessary to make decisions.

Ah, decision making.

Left to their own devices, most people will make the decision that serves them; the decision that requires the least amount of contemplation and exertion. This isn’t because they’re lazy or immoral or wrong. It’s often because they lack the tools necessary to do otherwise. As leaders it is our job to equip people with a set of tools, which might also be called values or strategic imperatives depending on who you ask. These tools are essentially the rules we look to when it comes to making decisions of any kind, big or small.

Our values are the criteria that we use to make decisions.

When we give our teams a set of criteria which can be utilized to make decisions, we’re teaching the organization and individuals to self-prioritize. With a clear understanding of the collective goal, the individual team members start recognizing they already have the skills necessary to make the decisions that are best for the organization. They begin recognizing they already have what they need to make a great choice 100 percent of the time by applying the values to a situation. This is how we, as leaders, teach the organization to be both dynamic and adaptable.

In my professional experience with IBM, they spent an ample amount of time focused on values. At first, I couldn’t understand why. A couple weeks after our orientation training, I was connecting with my boss at our weekly check-in.

I said, “Listen, I’m dealing with this situation. I need your guidance on it.” 

He asked me what was going on, and I filled him in. 

He asked me to repeat the company values I had learned during training. 

When I rattled them off, and he said, “Doug, you have everything you need to make a great decision. Just go do it.” 

By applying the values to the situation, I was able to make a self-informed decision without relying on a direct answer from my boss. We didn’t talk about that decision again. When time is spent practicing company values and getting those right, members of the team become fully equipped to make decisions on their own. They become more self-managing.

Providing team members with the ability to make their own decisions is empowering. As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Self-empowerment goes a long way. Not only is ROI dramatically improved, but each employee stops relying on the manager for the answer and instead shifts to a place of self-reliance. Self-reliance is a high bar — and it is absolutely a bar which can be consistently met.

Here is the challenge for you as a leader.

Your values must be actionable. They can’t be fluffy words like boldness or fun. While we all agree that these are important it is hard to use in decision making. It is certainly possible to be bold and make a decision that does not align with our shared vision. I still remember IBM’s 3 values. The first one is “Dedication to every client’s success”. This value causes me to understand how each unique client defines their own success and then be dedicated to helping them achieve it.

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