Decisions, Decisions … Determining How to Decide

“I just really want my Team Leaders to decide and tell me what to do.”

Evan’s statement hit me like a ton of bricks.  He had just asked me a question about fee payment and student participation in field experiences. Instead of answering, I had turned his question back on him, asking for his opinion on the issue.

His response felt so familiar, except this time I was on the other end of the exchange.  His words reminded me eerily of my own statement to Jack many years ago in a similar situation, “Please just tell me what to do, and I will go do it.”

Evan didn’t want to give input.  He wanted to be provided with a clear directive.  I had hesitated in my response, thinking that I needed to gather information and take peoples’ opinions into account.

No, I didn’t.  This wasn’t a complex issue.  It was a bit tricky because our past practice didn’t match our stated policy, but we had a policy.  I could issue a directive, and, as Evan had gently noted, that was my job.

So, I did what he asked. I made a decision aligned with our policy and shared it with all members of the team.  Done.  Handled.

But when it rains, it pours, and within a week of this exchange I found myself in a second, very similar decision-making situation.

This time, I was separately approached by both the art teacher and the agricultural education teacher asking for assistance with management of my students during their classes.  I readily provided suggestions, but with their large class sizes, I knew that what they really needed was a second set of hands.  Because I lead a team that includes a paraprofessional, I was in a position to offer this help.

The quickest and easiest solution was to respond to these requests for help by offering the use of Minet, our paraprofessional, during these two classes; however, I was concerned.  There are a lot of other specialist teachers in our building who also work with my students.  Were they having similar challenges?  Should I solve the problem that was right in front of me, or should I dig deeper to see what else might be out there?  I was worried that there were teachers who were similarly frustrated, but who had not thought to ask for support.

In addition, while I serve as the team leader, there are seven teachers who are impacted by the use of our paraprofessional.  To assign her to work in another classroom meant a loss of her support for these teachers during their planning time.  Should I involve these teachers in the decision? Did I need to gather their input before moving forward?

A brief conversation with Jack helped me to conceptualize what I needed to do.

Really this issue involved two decisions:

  • Assigning Minet to support elective classes during our team planning time
  • Building a schedule to best support these elective classes

For the first, I decided that, like in the fees and field experiences situation, I did not need input from my team before offering up the assistance of our paraprofessional in elective classes.  The primary function of any school staff person is to support students.

I felt confident that assigning our paraprofessional to help support behavioral stabilization of our students was the right decision, even though it would result in the teachers on my team losing some assistance.  In addition, it was aligned with building policy and past practice.  While gathering input from the team could serve to reinforce and garner support for my thinking, it also could lead to unnecessary debate, and it would certainly cost everyone precious time. This seemed like a needless muddying of the waters, so I made this decision unilaterally.

However, in looking at how to build a schedule to allow Minet to best support elective classrooms I felt like I made a nearly opposite decision.  Rather than cleanly deciding, I sent the issue back to the specialist team, and I asked them to guide me in how to best assign the use of this support. In this case, I explicitly asked for input and debate when I had intentionally chosen not to do this exact thing with my team just moments before.

In a single situation, I was implying that team input both mattered and didn’t matter. On the one hand, with my team, I was operating in alignment with my frequently stated concern, “Don’t make us debate it among ourselves,” while, simultaneously, I was asking the specialist team to do exactly that, to debate it among themselves.

I felt strongly that in each circumstance the decision I made was the correct one. But why? What made the difference?

I was certain that is all made sense somehow, and yet it also seemed to make no sense at all.

I was reminded of a conversation on social media in response to my recent post exploring leadership. The discussion was really between Jack and his former principal and mentor, Bob Suess, but since it was conducted on my Facebook page, I was privy to it.

Bob, in his wisdom, said this, “A leadership model that informs leaders of the correct approach to every possible issue in every possible situation … doesn’t and never will exist.” While I know the inherent truth in this statement, I found it to be both frustrating and relieving, in equal measure.

If the leadership answer key doesn’t exist, then I can stop spending so much energy searching for it; however if it doesn’t exist then I will also remain eternally unsure relative to what to do when.

But Bob didn’t leave me hanging, he also said this, “With all the variables, one might recommend that, given a+b+c+ . . +h, one should most likely choose approach or strategy m, r, or z, but leadership cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula. Leaders must always draw upon their own professional and personal knowledge, observations, and understanding to select the approach the best fits that particular situation.”

I know that what he wanted me to take away from this statement is that every situation is unique and there is never a singular right answer that fits every instance. But he also threw me a lifeline in referencing that while there may not be a formula, there may be patterns, and a series of most-likely, best-fit options.

So I went back and examined the leadership decisions I had recently made and explored my own thinking relative to each.

I was able to make a unilateral decision regarding the fee payment-field experience issue because we had a policy. I found my written record of this policy in our minutes, and I acted in accordance with it. It wasn’t the warmest, fuzziest feel-good response to the issue, but it was clear and clean. Why would I waste people’s time gathering input, when we had already established policy?

Similarly, I was able to offer the use of our paraprofessional without collecting input from the team because the decision had a clear answer that aligned with our building value of putting the needs of students first, and we had implemented a similar procedure in the past.

I asked myself why I didn’t feel the same level of clarity about simply assigning our paraprofessional to the teachers who had asked for assistance. I realized that it was because I felt like I didn’t have all the information. There were potential missing pieces related to what may have been unspoken needs from other teachers in the building.  This is why I sent it back to the specialist team for further review.

Based on this self-reflection, I began constructing a series of questions to ask myself when working toward a decision.

  • Do I have all the necessary information?
  • Do I have the authority to make the decision?
  • Is my proposed solution aligned with institutional values and practices?
  • Is my proposed solution a clear, best solution?

I threaded this mental exploration together with information from Conversational Capacity and A Failure of Nerve, (which Jack and I have written about previously here and here) and ultimately, I developed this flowchart, which I have dubbed a Decision-Making Tree.

Decision-Making Flowchart. Click to enlarge.

Decision making is hard.  There are often many variables and a variety of solutions, each with a separate set of pros and cons.

While, I am aware that any tool like this runs the risk of making the complex task of decision-making seem like a simplistic process, I also am a strong believer in clear processes.  The more frequently we can use process and procedure to guide us, the more efficient we will be in our work and the less often we will be caught up in personalized conflict.

In addition, a clear process can help propel us to action.  It can take courage to pull the trigger on making a decision.  It’s always easier to have someone else do this for us – after all, then we cannot be held solely accountable for the outcome of the decision.  It often feels better to decide by majority vote or by consensus because that creates shared responsibility, but this does not always yield a better result. In light of this, leaders are charged with making clear, executive decisions when appropriate.

On the flowchart, if the answers to all the questions in the left-column are “yes,” then the leader is in a position to unilaterally go ahead and make a decision. Doing so may feel uncomfortable, or even downright scary, but ultimately this saves everyone in the institution both time and potential discord.

These types of unilateral decisions also create a kind of psychological safety in an institution, as they lend clarity to responsibilities and expectations, and indicate what the non-negotiables are. In education, we often talk about the importance of establishing boundaries for children.  This is no less true for adults. We all need to clearly understand what is expected of us and what the procedures and values of the organization are.

Similarly, it is important to share expectations around how a decision will be made.  Will it be made unilaterally by a leader informed by input from others?  Will it be made by a vote from a decision-making body?  Does it require consensus from an entire group?  In Conversational Capacity, Craig Weber discusses the importance of knowing this prior to beginning discussion on an issue.

Regardless of how the decision will ultimately be made, it is often, although not always, necessary to gather input from a variety of sources. Weber reinforces the importance of engaging in challenging conversations through the implementation of both curiosity (actively asking questions about potential opposing views) and candor (clearly and directly stating thoughts and concerns).

I, like many others, am prone to focus exclusively on the merits of my own proposed solutions and neglect to intentionally seek out the thoughts of those in opposition.  Having a piece built into the flowchart that focuses on requesting feedback from those likely to be opposed, as well as those likely to be in agreement, serves as an important reminder for me to take this step when necessary, even if it yields discomfort in the discussion.

If Weber’s contribution to the flowchart is the importance of hearing all relevant arguments.  Friedman’s is in the potential perils of consensus. In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman expresses concerns about consensus weakening the value systems of institutions by requiring compromise.  His argument is that the process of seeking consensus requires the finding of a middle ground. This necessarily pulls people away from the more powerful higher ground, and allows those misaligned with institutional values to control the conversation.  Friedman calls this “sandbagging.”

Consensus can certainly be a powerful decision-making tool; however, in light of Friedman’s arguments, I suggest that consensus be used infrequently and only for issues that address cultural shifts for the institution as a whole.  If a leader is seeking consensus because it feels good and avoids a conflictual outcome, this is likely not a powerful enough reason to implement this strategy.

Weber expresses concerns about the potential perils of consensus-seeking as well: “Remember, balanced dialogue is not about talking until everyone on the team reaches agreement; it’s about helping the person making the decision make the most informed and effective choice possible. … Once you have enough information on the table to help the decision maker make an informed choice, move on to the next issue.” (172-173)

Regardless of how a decision is made, once it is determined, it needs to be implemented.  But be prepared.  It is nearly guaranteed that a decision, once made, will be questioned by those it impacts. Perhaps this questioning and challenge is part of the human condition. While it is true that not all decisions are good ones, this cannot be determined until a period of implementation has occurred.

For this reason, Jack asked me to embed a stop sign in the flowchart.  (He won’t admit it, but I think it’s there for me.  I have a propensity to question every decision, and to actively seek flaws in any plan. I’m certain that I challenge him far more than he appreciates.) Jack wanted this symbol to serve as a reminder of firmness of intent – a resistance to wavering under challenge.

In thinking about my own tendencies, I considered what message I need to hear that would be resolute against weakening resolve, but would also honor my voice. I identified three important components to an effective response to challenge:

  • A clear articulation of the decision
  • A summary of the most important rationales leading to the decision
  • An indication that the decision could be revisited after a given time if it proved to be problematic

Decision making is often both difficult and complicated.  And yet leaders are required to make myriad decisions every day.  While I know that Bob is correct in saying that there is no answer key and there is no singular right way, having tools to guide us can make things simpler.

In some ways, perhaps Bob and I are saying much the same thing. In his closing remarks, he noted that ultimately a leader must, “move the institution and its members in the right direction, day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year. Only by looking back over a longer period of time does one ever fully appreciate the distance travelled. I always liked the analogy of the organizational leader as the individual walking next to an elephant and guiding its direction by gently tapping it with a stick.”

This sounds very much like what Jack calls, “playing The Long Game” – gradually getting that institutional elephant to move in the direction one wants it to go. I, too, am invested in shepherding the elephant, but I’m near certain that it will move more quickly, and with less duress, if there is a well-defined path, and if the guiding prods are clear and consistent.

There may be no answer key, but there are some answers, and there are strategies to support these responses.  Examining how to make decisions under what type of conditions can make the monumental task of decision making easier.