I think a significant issue in modern workplaces is decision inequality.
I see it all the time. What I perceive to be a low impact, quick, reversible decision can’t be made by one person. It has to “go up the line” and be shopped around to multiple stakeholders for buy-in and input. This adds lag time and can strip away ownership (and enthusiasm!) the original decision-maker had. If we consider that as knowledge workers, we make hundreds of decisions a day, it’s inevitable that this strict and gated process promotes reactive and slow decision making.
Unfortunately, this gated decision process does not play well with flexible work. How can it?!
Flexible work requires us to choose when and where we do our best work. It gives us ownership over our decisions and the right information to make the best decisions for us, our team, our family and our company. A gated decision process slows this down by design. It dilutes ownership and restricts information sharing.
Although Yarno is a young company and we (now) subscribe to decision equality, as the team grew, we found ourselves with an ugly gated decision process.
Our team were coming to me to ask if they could work from home, take leave etc. I was frustrated thinking I’m not the best person to make these decisions. I don’t have all the context, and it’s the team who will be impacted, so they’re the best people to communicate with. Don’t ask me!
Then I realised that our team were following a process that I had unknowingly created. I was the instigator of my grief! What could I do to fix it?
The decision process
Twelve months ago, after much reading and experimentation, we created a decision process. It’s a set of steps that when followed, enables anyone in the team to make their own decision about working remotely or taking leave.
The significant change is that instead of asking a senior Yarnoer or team lead for permission, we give the team a heads up of our intentions.
So we say “I intend to work from home tomorrow” rather than “Can I work from home tomorrow?”. If the team are happy, they can give a simple thumbs up. If they have concerns or questions, that conversation happens before alerting the wider team.
This simple tweaking of words has had a tangible impact. It’s changed our mindset and empowered us to own our decisions.
I first read about this approach in Turn the Ship Around!, a book written by David Marquet, an ex-US Submarine commander. As you can imagine, the Navy has a strict, top-down hierarchy where the commander of the ship has absolute authority. Traditionally this was seen as critical for maintaining discipline and order in a potentially life and death environment. Crew members were required to ask for permission from their senior, to make a decision.
Marquet, however, saw it differently. He wanted everyone in his crew to be a leader, and he knew that to achieve this they’d have to make their own decisions. So he gave his crew ownership over their decisions by removing the need for them to ask permission and replacing it with stating an intention.
Key ingredients for success
In my experience, encouraging team members to make their own decisions requires a few things.
There’s a core assumption here that people will do the right thing. That they’ll do what they say they’ll do. My approach to this has always been to treat people how I’d want to be treated. This includes trusting them from an early stage, even before I truly know and understand them. This sounds risky even as I write it! But I think placing trust in someone early communicates that I believe they can do the right thing and I hope it motivates them to do their best work. It’s how I would want to be treated.
As humans, our lives are pretty crazy. Uncertainty and change are inevitable, and everyone has things going on outside of work that are on their mind, yet they can’t control. I think we know this yet it’s easy to forget it when “busyness” sets in, and the inevitable feeling of not enough time rears its head.
I have to work hard to step outside my little world of busyness, to see things from my team’s perspective and to empathise with their situation. Especially when they have something going on in their life that means they need to work flexibly or take time off. The timing may not suit the business, but we’re committed to making it work for each other.
I recently read Satya Nadella’s (CEO of Microsoft) fantastic book, Hit Refresh. I was surprised to see Nadella consistently talk about the value of empathy. Surprised because I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Fortune 500 CEO mention the word, let along devote a book to it! His message is refreshing and inspires hope.
“I like to think that the C in CEO stands for culture. The CEO is the curator of an organisation’s culture. Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission.” – Satya Nadella
We’re discovering that we can’t rely on real-time communication because not everyone is working at the same time. We’re working through this scenario at the moment, and while challenging, it presents an opportunity. To slow things down, to encourage us to think about what we’re asking for and to add enough context so that it makes sense to other people reading.
It’s an opportunity to ask ourselves how we want to communicate with each other. Real-time communication is helpful when we want to discuss and action things right now. Yet it contributes to busy, reactive work and task switching – none of which help us produce great work.
I like how Basecamp approaches this. They’ve written a guide to internal communication for their team, that anyone can access on their website. The fact that they’re willing to share this with the world speaks volumes about how they communicate. The bulk of their commutation is in written form rather than spoken.
From their perspective, “Writing solidifies, chat dissolves. Substantial decisions start and end with an exchange of complete thoughts, not one-line-at-a-time jousts. If it’s important, critical, or fundamental, write it up, don’t chat it down.”
It can feel scary to hand decision making over. Yet, this uncertainty and fear can be repaid many times over as employees respect and appreciate being treated as a human being!
If the thought of your people making their own decisions strikes you with fear (as it initially did for me), this exercise may help. It can be quite cathartic actually.
On a whiteboard or piece of paper, write “When I think about delegating this decision, I worry that…”. Then complete the sentence, as many times as you like. It’s a helpful way to extract what’s spinning around in your head, and it gives you the space to work through each one. I find there’s something about writing fears down that reduces their hold.
I invite you to consider if decision inequality is present in your organisation. I think if we can get this right and if we can trust each other to make our own decisions we’ll all be better for it.
We’re so excited to have Lachy joining us in May to join a panel of other company owners who have all trialled (successfully or unsuccessfully) a 4 Day Work Week.
Come along to find out if this revolutionary approach to flexibility could work in your team or organisation – and how to get the fundamentals right first.
And there’s still time to grab your 2-4-1 tickets. REGISTER HERE
Until next week,
Claire and Sophie 💙
“Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Mahatma Gandhi