Decision-making is something leaders are asked to do all day long. Where do we want to hold the next off-site? Which job candidate should we hire? When will we be ready to launch the new product? What did you decide about the remote work policy?
Decision-making has always been part of leadership, but it's become exorbitantly more challenging in today's disruptive, digital, diverse context. What does culturally intelligent decision-making look like for today's global leader? It's not as simple as "just make a decision." Who makes the decision, the process for doing so, and the communication plan are all critical factors linked to leadership effectiveness.
Here are four practices culturally intelligent leaders use to make more effective, inclusive decisions:
Fall in love with the problem
I'm increasingly convinced that we need to spend more time problem-finding than problem-solving. Admittedly, this is a shift from how I've operated as a leader. I've been relentless with teams to bring solutions, not problems. But mounting research supports that spending time defining, understanding, and deeply analyzing a problem is the foundation for making a good decision. Spending time digging into a problem is tough when things are moving so swiftly and people are pressuring you for a decision. But it's absolutely necessary if you're going to make an effective decision.
Albert Einstein said, "If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes."
Define the challenge. Do a root cause analysis with something like Toyota's 5 Why process. Identify the key obstacles and challenges related to this problem for diverse stakeholders. Then you're far better prepared to consider potential solutions.
Classify the decision
The more diverse the team, the more important it is to explicitly classify decisions as big bet, mid-range, or everyday decisions. Big bet decisions are things like acquiring a new company, eliminating a line of business, or determining the annual budget. Mid-range decisions might be something like switching to a new database software, adding a new product line, or deciding between two top job candidates for a senior position. Everyday decisions are the judgment calls staff make daily as part of their jobs.
Classifying decisions is useful for any team but it's less critical for homogeneous teams who have a shared understanding of "the way we do things around here". But as diversity becomes the new normal for most teams, explicit classification of decisions provides clarity, empowers everyone, and leads to better outcomes.
Ensure every individual on your team knows:
- What am I authorized to decide on my own?
- When should I solicit input before making a decision and from whom?
- What am I not authorized to decide on my own?
Define the decision-making process
Even though hierarchies in most US organizations are relatively flat, US decision-making often looks more similar to how decisions are made in places like India and Brazil. The decision is often made by one senior leader, albeit typically with input from others along the way. In Japan however, many organizations use the ringi system of decision-making that builds consensus from the bottom up. Managers in lower ranks of the organization discuss a new proposal together before presenting it to managers in the next level up. This upward progression continues and when the proposal reaches the highest level of decision-makers, it is either implemented or not. This gives the organization confidence that everyone collectively had a chance to weigh in on the decision.
Culturally intelligent leaders proactively outline the process for making a decision. This is particularly important for big bet and mid-range decisions. Are you soliciting input to see how people feel about the situation or are you using their input to shape the decision that will be made? Is a team studying the problem to make a recommendation or are they expected to make the decision? Should the input from some stakeholders be weighed more heavily than others (e.g., the most profitable market or region?). If so, be transparent about those assumptions.
If you expect your team members to make decisions on their own, consider whether some need coaching. While many individuals thrive when given the chance to make their own decisions, those with a more risk-averse, high power distance orientation may be reticent to do so. Culturally intelligent leadership doesn't mean acquiescing to everyone's decision-making preferences. But it means considering how to adjust your leadership based on the cultural value orientations of your team. For someone who is uncomfortable making a decision, ask them to come with one or two recommendations and work together to make the decision.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
The number one characteristic followers want from leaders everywhere is clear communication. But what's clear to me may not be clear to you. Some individuals you lead simply want to know what you decided. They don't want a long explanation defending the decision. Others will have a much easier time accepting and supporting the decision when you share as much information as possible.
Realistically, there are times when leaders can't be transparent about decision-making. It's irresponsible and unkind to share that you're thinking about eliminating 10 percent of staff and then asking people to sit with the anxiety and uncertainty while the decision gets made. But when possible, keeping everyone informed about decisions is directly linked to whether people feel included and engaged. In too many cases, communication about decisions rolls out informally and those who have access to people at the top are in the know while others feel excluded.
One of the most important decision-making communication channels are mid-level managers. Equip them to discuss big-bet decisions with their teams. Start by sharing strategic decisions at a town hall meeting or through a company-wide memo but plan for the real sense making that occurs one-on-one with managers and in team meetings. Ensure team leaders are equipped to communicate the decision and its implications with their teams.
Global leaders make decisions from the gut at their peril. The more diverse and distributed your leadership context, the more likely your gut is going to lead you to a decision that works great for some and horribly for others. A culturally intelligent, strategic approach to decision-making ensures that we lead everyone effectively. And that's good for business.