Indecision Is A Decision

Indecision Is A Decision

Avoiding tough decisions is destructive to organizations.

Several years ago, my firm was retained by a board of directors who believed their CEO was the reason for the company’s lack of progress. They wanted my firm to analyze the CEO’s performance and confirm their suspicions. After a number of interviews and reading through board meeting minutes and other materials, I met with the board and asked them if they remembered the statement from the renowned philosopher Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” After a few moments of deafening silence, I then explained that it wasn’t the CEO who was the problem—it was them.

Their CEO had three times recommended the company divest itself of product lines that were losing money. Instead of taking action on his recommendation, the board deferred the decision to the next meeting, and the next, and the next. I told them that there was nothing wrong with their CEO, but that they needed to listen and be decisive. During the time of their inaction, the value of the business lines in question had continued to erode, so when they finally decided to divest, they received a fraction of what they would have had they done so earlier.

Unfortunately, I could write a book filled with stories about the fallout when leaders are unable or unwilling to take action or make decisions. The simple message is this: Indecision is essentially a decision not to act, and that’s a destructive decision. “Denoidance” is a term I coined several years ago to describe the ugly combination of denial and avoidance of tough decisions or conflict, which allows the status quo to continue to deteriorate and/or invites organizational dysfunction to run rampant.

Fear is the culprit
Sometimes a leader or group of executives fails to make a decision because they are afraid to make a wrong decision. They believe that by delaying they will have more time to gather information and analyze data, and they will make a more informed (and, therefore, the right) decision. That may be an appropriate course of action in some situations, but most of the time it is a delaying tactic to make the leader feel better about the direction he/she has decided to take but is afraid to own. Other times the leader wants to delay because of conflict the decision will cause; ultimately this inaction will cause someone else to eventually make the decision. And sometimes the decision is between two difficult choices and the leader simply lacks the guts to deal with either choice.

When bad decisions like this are made, fear, rather than common sense, is usually the motivation behind the choice. Strong leaders aren’t afraid to insist their organizations overcome these fears.

Communication is the secret
When business school professors or business authors (like me) cite examples of business brilliance, they usually point to a company’s ability to innovate, develop new business models or capitalize on operational strengths. While these are admirable, the organizational skill that is often overlooked, but is the real linchpin, is communication. The characteristics of the discussion, exchange of ideas and information flow between leaders and their organization is the hidden secret of effective decision-making.

For example, how many meetings have you been in where a proposal is presented for a new strategy or project—and then everyone waits for the CEO to indicate his or her approval or disapproval before they give their opinion? And if the CEO seems to be leaning in a certain direction, are contrary opinions suppressed? Then what happens after the meeting, when it’s time to implement the strategy or project? The new idea slowly dies on the vine because there wasn’t enough buy-in up front. And although a decision had been made, inaction and indecision become stumbling blocks to the strategy’s implementation and success, due to poor exchange of ideas and inadequate information flow.

Next time, imagine what would happen if the CEO encouraged honest feedback, candor, informal discussion and specific decisions about who is doing what by when. The best leaders know how to cultivate a culture of open discourse where everyone is expected to communicate freely, openly and honestly, toward a common purpose.

Taking action
Indecision leads to inaction, because nobody understands what’s expected of them. The old saw “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,” becomes the cultural norm. However, leaders with an aptitude for decision and action are the ones who ask tough questions, such as “What are we missing?” or “What will be our competitor’s response?” or “When will this be completed?” or “What will you do next?” Tough questions such as these, when asked in an open face-to-face discussion that is to the point but not rude, forces people to make decisions and be accountable. Nothing turns around a culture of indecision faster than holding people accountable and insisting upon action.

Follow-up, feedback are key
The natural final step in a decision- making process is to follow up and give feedback. If a decision has been made, it will still not be successful if the leader doesn’t hold people accountable. While this admittedly seems like Business 101, I’m nonetheless always surprised by the number of leaders who aren’t consistent at follow-up and feedback. Perhaps it is because it requires a lot of discipline, but it’s a necessary step to break the cycle of indecision.

Recognize that indecision is just a decision not to act, which makes it destructive in the long run. Leaders with the strength to insist on conflict resolution, honest dialogue and consistent follow-up will be rewarded with a following of employees engaged and willing to work together with energy, and that’s what makes a business successful.

Mark W. Sheffert ( is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance, and litigation advisory firm.

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