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How to detect no-decision managers

The paradox of no-decision managers is that they are invisible to their bosses, but visible to their subordinates. Bosses, therefore, find it difficult to detect them, especially more experienced no-decision managers. 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.

In your organisation

If you are looking for no-decision managers in an organisation, the only way to find them is to make a conscious effort to search for them. Because of their survival strategies, standard Human Resource systems and processes do not reveal them, not even 360 feedback evaluations. Thus an informal search is the only way to discover them.

Someone somewhere in Human Resources knows whether there is a no-decision manager in the organisation. So this is the place to start. But before deciding who to appoint to take charge of the search, be aware that Human Resource managers can also be no-decision managers themselves, even those reporting to the CEO of the organisation. If one exists somewhere in Human Resources he or she will be difficult to find.

The appointed person should discretely talk to as many people in the different Human Resource departments and simply ask if they know of such a manager in the organisation. This is also the way to find other types of toxic manager.  

Three types of toxic manager hide their toxicity from their hierarchy: unethical managers, indecisive managers and no-decision managers. Unethical managers do not announce their dishonesty, or their deviation from company processes and procedures. They know that when discovered, they are likely to be fired regardless of other qualities. Indecisive managers are not as toxic as no-decision managers, but their subordinates suffer frustration or anger in the same way. These bosses make decisions too slowly and too late, unlike no-decision managers who never make them at all.  

Once names of potential no-decision managers have been revealed from the person making the search, the bosses of these managers need to be informed. All they need to do is ask the managers to make a decision and watch what happens.

This happened inadvertently to one of my own no-decision bosses when a position in his team became vacant. The recruiting consultant presented three candidates to my no-decision boss and he persuaded his boss to see all three. Unfortunately for him the reply came back, “All three are excellent candidates, you choose.” This is the worst thing that can happen to a no-decision manager – make a decision in the open with everyone looking on. My boss was lucky, he invited all three in for another interview and then waited. Two out of the three accepted other positions during the wait, leaving a choice of one, so no decision had to be made. The boss had already agreed with this candidate.

In your team

The other place to look for a no-decision manager is in your own team. In my newsletter last month (How do no-decision managers survive), I highlighted the characteristics of experienced no-decision managers.  They are brilliant at something. They have an excellent relationship with you the boss and anticipate what you need. They have excellent informal internal networks within the company and have an answer to every potential criticism you might have against them.

Unfortunately excellent managers also have 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 absurd. What is important, though, is that all experienced no-decision managers give the impression that they are competent, effective managers. They are after all ‘hiding in excellence’.

Annoying habits

Over time though, 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 they have too much information, 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, you may start to recognise that their department never moves forward. It never seems to evolve. It lags behind compared to others despite the manager being classified as excellent. You will start questioning the department’s performance.

But when questioned– and this is very important to note – the no-decision manager will always give an excellent explanation. You are 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, you 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 you will be given very plausible explanations. But still the question reappears. 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. For confirmation managers can either ask the no-decision manager to make a decision then sit back and watch what happens or simply ask their subordinates. They know their boss is a no-decision manager.

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