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Do you have a no-decision manager in your team?

The paradox of no-decision managers is that they are invisible to their bosses, but visible to the subordinates. They have their survival strategies in place and these need to be understood and dismantled to find them. Inexperienced no-decision managers are more likely to have less sophisticated survival strategies or even none at all, if they are at the beginning of their careers. However the way to find them is the same for both experienced and inexperienced ones.

The secret is to examine subordinates who seem to be perfect. These are ones that give their bosses the following impressions:

‘They anticipate everything I need’

‘They adapt to my management style’

‘They give me extensive, pertinent information as to what is going on in their department’

‘They have a detailed knowledge of the industry and the competition’

‘They know in detail the company’s products and systems better than anyone’

‘They understand their teams and their managers’ subordinates’

‘They are well appreciated by my own team and even my own boss’

Excellent managers of course also have many of these same characteristics, so it is important not jump to conclusions too quickly. Discovering no-decision managers takes time and wrongly identifying an excellent manager as a no-decision manager would be unfortunate, if not rather absurd.

What is important to note, though, is that all experienced no-decision managers have all these characteristics, giving the impression that that they are competent, effective managers. They are after all ‘hiding in excellence’. Any subordinate that does not have a majority of these characteristics is not likely to be an experienced no-decision manager and might just be a normal manager or a young no-decision manager.

Annoying habits

Over time, the initial impression of the ‘perfect subordinate’ will begin to wear off. This is the moment when bosses need to become particularly attentive. They will start to notice the annoying habit of ‘deviated upward delegation’ by gradually discovering that information is too plentiful, and that they know too much about what is going on in the no-decision manager’s department. This will be accompanied by repeated questions by the suspected no-decision manager such as:

 ‘What would you decide?’ or ‘What is your opinion?’ in various different forms. 

While this is going on, bosses will start to recognise that their suspected no-decision manager’s department never moves forward. It never seems to evolve. The department lags behind compared to others. The boss will start questioning the department’s performance, thinking:

‘Why is everything so slow?’

‘Why do decisions never get made?’

‘She seems so competent but I can’t see any progress.’

But when questioned– and this is very important to note – the no-decision manager will always give an excellent explanation. The boss is initially reassured, but soon the same questions will reappear.

Then over time criticisms from subordinates and information on lack of decision-making will start to filter through, including information that the subordinates are unhappy and frustrated with their no-decision manager as a boss. Complaints will be reported, usually through Human Resources, yet again the no-decision manager will always have an excellent explanation when questioned.

At some point, bosses will discover that this particular manager spends a large amount of time with the boss’s boss and with people in headquarters or other senior or influential managers who have no apparent direct relationship with this manager.  Again, on questioning the boss will be given an adequate and probably very plausible explanation. But still the question remains. Why is this manager spending so much time with the hierarchy?

No-decision managers are usually discovered by the accumulation of these small incidents over time, where each incident on its own is not significant enough for management to take action. They seem to be good managers but there are complaints and incidents.

Final discovery

To dismantle the survival strategy of a no-decision manager, all five of these warning signs need to be activated concerning the suspected no-decision manager:

  1. Too much information
  2. Repeated requests for an opinion or advice
  3. Reported incidents of lack of decision-making and unhappy subordinates
  4. Unexplained slow progress in the department involved
  5. Too much time being spent directly with headquarters and the boss’s boss

If a boss has evidence, however flimsy, on all of the five points above, on any of the managers in their team, they have probably found a no-decision manager. All they need to do now is to ask Human Resources to question the direct subordinates of this manager, discreetly but in detail. These subordinates will give the final confirmation of whether there is a no-decision manager in the team.

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