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InFocus

Developing as a leader – decisions, decisions

As leaders we make hundreds of decisions a day, from the utterly trivial to the potentially life-changing – but how do we come to make these decisions?

In the first article of this series, we looked at building your professional network. This time, we’re going to stay a little closer to home, examining how we make decisions in our working lives, what influences our decision making and how we can best approach it to keep our team on board.

First, let’s consider how we make decisions at work. How do you make decisions in your role? While it is an extremely common thing to do, it can be quite challenging to pin down how exactly we do it. To start digging in, a related but more accessible question is: what affects our decision making? Especially when we’re thinking in the context of potential change which will affect our colleagues, peers, teams, clients or community? Let’s consider three categories: situation, staff and self.

Situation

The facts of a decision are the most obvious influences when considering what choices we have and the way forward. For a start, how important is the decision? Then, how complex is it? These two factors then lead to the third question: can you make the decision now or does it require more careful consideration? How much do you know about the situation and what additional information is needed? Is there a deadline? Finally, consider the consequences of making the decision and the different options available: what is at stake here?

Staff

Next, consider your team and the people in it. How involved would they like to be, or do they need to be, in making the decision? Generally speaking, the greater the impact of a decision on a team, the more input they should have. What is the level of willingness to take collective responsibility for decision making, and how much guidance would the team like or require? How likely is it that the team will be able to reach a consensus within themselves, or will there be different views and different desired outcomes within the team? It’s also worth considering your current organisational culture and what team expectations will be – if the norm for your workplace is that people are consulted and included in decision making, it will be expected that this will continue. And don’t forget to consider ongoing outcomes – are the team ready to get on board, can any requirements be met and how does accountability come into it?

It’s … worth considering your current organisational culture and what team expectations will be – if the norm for your workplace is that people are consulted and included in decision making, it will be expected that this will continue

Self

Finally, consider your own approach to the problem and your personal preferences around decision making. What fundamental beliefs and values underpin your approach to your work? Which of these do you prioritise? Examine your decision-making habits – do you tend to go with a first instinct, or weigh up all the options? How confident are you about taking the first step of a decision with unknown consequences? Perhaps more controversially – how confident are you that your team can and will make good collective decisions? And for those bigger decisions – how comfortable are you with taking risks? Is there a reputational risk if the wrong decision is made? How can you minimise this type of risk? And finally, a little more of a philosophical question: what type of leader do you want your team to see you as, and how could this affect your approach?

Leadership behaviour continuum

In 1958, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt characterised these factors as sets of pressures faced when making a decision: situational pressures, team pressures and inner pressures. Their model of a “leadership behaviour continuum” offered seven options for decision making, often condensed into “tell, sell, consult and delegate” (Figure 1) (Tannenbaum and Schmidt, 1973).

FIGURE (1) Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s model of a “leadership behaviour continuum” offers seven options for decision making, showcased here with its condensed “tell, sell, consult and delegate” format

Take a moment to consider where you sit on this scale when making decisions at work, and the decision-making practices you’ve witnessed in other leaders and managers you’ve worked with. It’s unlikely that anyone will be at the extreme ends; discussion of potential different courses of action would not be expected and perhaps the only situation where the first option would be used is in an emergency, where the person taking charge will need to issue clear orders for, for example, the resuscitation of a patient or evacuation of a building. But in most decisions, there is a choice to be made as to the level of delegation you are comfortable with, the team is comfortable with and that is appropriate for the situation.

Leaders must have the necessary self-awareness to consider the three sets of pressures before deciding on the most appropriate decision-making approach for them, their team and their organisation

The underlying lesson from this model is that leaders must have the necessary self-awareness to consider the three sets of pressures before deciding on the most appropriate decision-making approach for them, their team and their organisation.

So, here’s this month’s challenge: the next time you have a reasonably significant decision to make at work, take the three sets of considerations – situation, staff and self – and make some notes about the pressures resulting from each one and the impact they could have on the decision-making process. Then, think about where on the continuum the decision could be made. Try using this model the next time you have this type of decision to make, and see how you feel it works.

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