How to decide can be a hard decision

Whether to involve your boss when deciding on a move can be a hard call, says Paul M Ingevaldson

During my years in the IT business, I had the privilege of working with some of the most intelligent and devoted people I have ever known. I usually found IT people to be thoughtful, insightful and well meaning. Generally, they put the affairs of their company ahead of their own personal comfort, as evidenced by their total commitment to resolving problems — often after regular work hours.

One area that I always found lacking in IT, however, was management training. Promotions to the role of manager were usually based on some particular accomplishment or just a vague feeling on the part of upper management. Appointments were seldom made on hard empirical evidence of managerial skill. I think this is common in many professions. As a result, much management training is of the on-the-job, seat-of-the-pants variety.

One approach I used when I coached my subordinates about how to better perform their jobs or manage people is the concept of three decisions. It goes like this:

1. The decision that you make and don’t tell your boss about

Generally, you don’t tell the boss because you assume he has given you the implicit authority to make the call and isn’t really interested in knowing about the decision. In some cases, though, you may want to keep the boss in the dark as to the outcome. This approach can be very risky if the boss finds out and is surprised at the decision.

2. The decision that you make and then tell your boss about

This is a bit lower-risk, but it also shows that you think you have the authority to make the call. In this case, you learn very quickly whether you do. If not, the boss is usually more understanding, since at least you were forthcoming with the information.

3. The decision you tell your boss about and then you make

This is the lowest-risk type of decision, but one that also has its downside. If you run to your boss before making every decision, at some point he might wonder if you are needed in the job.

I would tell my subordinates that the rules about which type of decision to use change every day and in every circumstance. Which one you select will depend on lots of intangibles: the implications of the decision, the results of a recent similar decision, the current profitability of the company, the status of the IT budget, the reputation of the user affected, the amount of money involved — even the mood of the boss. You must consider everything before you decide which way to decide.

Another variable is the level of trust between you and your boss. If you are new to working for this person, then the prudent path is to err on the safe side and clear most decisions through him. This way, you’ll discover whether you and the boss tend to be on the same wavelength. As your relationship grows and trust develops, more and more decisions can be Type I or Type II. The more your decisions achieve positive results, the more hands-off your boss will be and the more freedom you will have to make your own decisions.

Even so, the process is never perfect. Sometimes you’ll surprise the boss, and other times you’ll be overly cautious. But if you and your boss have an open relationship, a discussion about the three decisions can lead to a much more rewarding experience. And from the boss’s point of view, this type of discussion is an excellent way to grow and develop management talent in your organisation.

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