Over the last two weeks, I’ve had conversations with several people who experienced someone in leadership over them making a decision without gaining input from all parties involved. As you can imagine, these “unilateral decisions” frustrated those they led.

In one instance, a leader administered discipline to someone who never had a chance to tell her side of the story. In another, an employee discovered his leader was making decisions about the construction of a new building without consulting those who would ultimately be using the building.

I recently experienced a situation myself in which a leader was making a unilateral decision without all the facts. When I tried to offer a different view from his, he said, flatly, “I don’t care.”

It saddened me, not only because I want to help others make wise decisions, but because I’ve made similar mistakes myself. When people aren’t asked or permitted to share their views, they lose respect for their leader. Even worse, they begin to ask themselves, Why should I care?

It’s the exact opposite of what a great leader wants. If you are a leader or aspire to be, let me share some lessons I’ve learned over the years that may help you.

Unintended Consequences in Decision Making

I’m convinced that most unilateral decisions aren’t intentional on the part of leaders.  If you ask them about decision making, most of them will tell you it’s important to get the input of those impacted before a decision is made.  

Why does this happen, when it seems so obvious we should listen to others first? In my experience, these are a few of the many reasons:

  • Pressure – If a leader is under pressure and not feeling secure (real or imagined), most will want to assure the key decisions made are ones they agree with. The easiest way to control decision making is to be the one who makes the decisions.
  • “I know what’s best” – Leaders often think they know what the best decision is. They listen, but not how you or I want them to listen. It’s more of a courtesy. Then, they make the decision they wanted to make all along. 
  • “I don’t have time” – Leaders are very busy. Sometimes, though they know better, they feel pressured to hurry and make a decision and don’t want to take the time necessary to seek out input.
  • Don’t ask, don’t say “no” – I worked for a CEO many years ago who said to me once, “If I don’t ask people, then I won’t have to say no.”

Leaders: what’s important to remember in decision making? 

Remember the decisions you make are not about you. Decisions are about determining what is best for others. Scripture reminds us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”(Philippians 2:3-4 NIV)

Asking for input is a sign of respect for others. Yes, when you ask people for their thoughts, you risk learning something you didn’t expect. This new information can impact your timeline or projected costs. But those very ideas might help you make a better decision.

Leaders: please listen first, then make your decision.

I want to learn from you! Have you ever made a unilateral decision that affected those who reported to you? What advice would you give to your younger self?