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Why leaders should make more collaborative decisions
Some top-down decisions are unavoidable and necessary. But if most decisions are only made by your team leads, this will weaken team morale and increase biased decision making.
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time6 min
Imagine three different leaders.
Leader A has all the decision-making power, thinks all their ideas are genius, and makes decisions without consulting anyone.
Then there’s Leader B who consults with their team, but often ends up making the decision they think is right, regardless of the evidence or data presented by the team.
Neither of those sound quite right, do they? Meet Leader C.
Leader C understands that despite being the appointed leader, they don't know everything. They also realize that in a fast-paced company, they can’t sign off on every single decision. So they empower their team to think freely and make day-to-day decisions in an agreed-upon wheelhouse.
Which leader would you rather have?
Which leader would you rather be?
I’d prefer Leader C, and I strive to be like Leader C. But, making collaborative decisions may not come easily to every executive—it’s not always easy for me either.
In fact, most company leaders fall into the trap of a top-down management style.
This leadership style is popularly known as HiPPO (Highest Paid Person's Opinion) syndrome.
How leaders can avoid the Hippo syndrome trap
It bears repeating: people in leadership roles do make top-down decisions. Making these kinds of decisions isn’t inherently harmful. It’s the idea of only making top-down decisions that’s problematic.
Usually, the problem starts with the leader’s view of what good leadership and taking responsibility entails. If you want to avoid Hippo syndrome, you’ll need to start with rewiring your idea of what effective leadership looks like.
Default to freedom and trust
Throughout my career, I’ve been asked by team members where and when they’re allowed to make decisions. These questions are tough to answer.
It’s challenging to make a comprehensive list of areas and circumstances about when team members are empowered to make decisions. It’s hard to know when oversight is necessary and when it’s counterproductive. It’s easy to question yourself.
So to avoid the problem of Hippo syndrome, I answer that question by defaulting to trust and freedom. I pick my battles. I tell my team that they’re free to make decisions about nearly everything—except on specific areas that could have significant negative impact on the company that is difficult to reverse.
This puts the onus on me to really think about decisions that matter most to me.
For example, the only two product decisions I’ve ever asked to sign off on were our product prices and basic (free forever) plan.
Picking your battles and trusting your teammates to make good decisions allows you to focus on the decisions you actually need to make as a leader.
Make decisions based on data
One of the quickest ways to frustrate your team is to make arbitrary decisions. Most great business decisions are data-backed decisions. This doesn’t mean that good leaders cannot make decisions based on their instincts—I certainly do. But if we lead with data, those gut decisions are likely to be more impactful.
Most business decisions fall into one of two categories: poker-style decisions and chess-style decisions. Most leaders make poker-style, gut-based decisions on rare occasions. The majority, in my opinion, make strategic decisions like a chess player.
On some issues, I may need to make gut-instinct decisions, decisions that may not seem conventional at the moment. On those occasions, collaborative decision-making means being open to my team about whether my decisions are data-backed or instinctual. Instead of forcefully implementing my decision, I ask for my team’s support.
I’ve found that such transparency (as well as a history of mostly relying on data-backed chess-style decisions—poker-style decisions need to be very few) builds trust. People are more willing to support you when they trust you.
Be pragmatic and humble
Making decisions for the greater good requires a heavy dose of humility.
It means being able to recognize when your team has better suggestions or ideas than you do—and being willing to accept that.
It’s more important to do what’s right for the team than it is to be right.
So when I have strong convictions, but the data suggests a different decision would work better for the greater good, I need to be willing to change my mind.
Good leaders also have to recognize the impact of their presence, of power dynamics. We need to be aware of the courage it takes for team members to share honest opinions, especially with leadership present. This should move us, our managers, and team leads to be more receptive of those opinions — especially when they’re data-backed.
These three principles are the backbone of our decision-making process at Hotjar. Here’s what the process looks like in practice.
Three elements of collaborative decision making
Choose one decision-maker: collaborative decision-making doesn’t mean everyone gets the final say. Decisions by committee are slow, lacking in accountability, and can get diluted. Decisions often need to come down to one decision-maker.
Embrace input: the person with the final say needs to seek input from their team. They need to consider feedback with an open mind, reviewing the necessary data and information to decide.
Include stakeholders: many companies have a variety of stakeholders who need to be informed on certain decisions, or at least be informed of decisions before they happen. The final decision-maker needs to make sure they’re getting buy-in from the stakeholders.
These elements are included in each step of this decision-making process. The process looks like this:
Review data and provide input
Have further consultations, if needed
But… Decisions do not mean that things are set in stone.
Part of an effective, collaborative decision process is leaving room for people to challenge any decision at any point. Trusting teams welcome disagreement and discourse, so they’re able to disagree and commit.
I think of most business decisions as reversible ‘two-way’ decisions, which can be corrected with minimal impact. If, upon reevaluation, a team leader realizes that their decision led to unsatisfactory results, they should feel empowered to make a change.
In my opinion, 90% of business decisions can be reversed.
‘One-way’ decisions are more impactful and irreversible. They should be made by those who can shoulder the burden—wins or losses—of making the call.
In fast-moving companies, leaders need to make decisions quickly.
Mistakes are inevitable. Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes. Instead, they should be open to correcting mistakes as soon as they arise and then moving on.
How Hotjar helps companies make well-informed decisions
Hotjar values data because that’s what we’re about, right down to our product itself.
Hotjar (the product) helps companies make better decisions by providing objective customer usage feedback. With the qualitative and quantitative insights uncovered by Hotjar, teams can utilize data to back up their ideas.
Although one person or set of executives needs to make decisions, this is less often the case.
Welcoming team input and, when appropriate, allowing teams to make decisions improves employee morale and creates a culture of inclusion. This will lead to well-rounded decisions that enhance your bottom line as a company.
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