Recently, I read a blog post from Russ Sabia from Patrick Lencioni’s Table Group discussing the dangers of top-down decision making.  It reminded me of some examples I have experienced in working with CEOs of some substantially sized organizations.  Maybe you know some leaders who fall into this category:

•    Leaders who have made up their minds, yet bring in the team for an “open discussion” only to disagree with suggestions that go against their intended direction or decision
•    Leaders who have set the culture that they always have the last word, and there are no exceptions
•    Leaders who think they are aware, but are really not aware of the details necessary to make the best informed decision

I recall working with one CEO of a 500 employee, multi-location company he had founded 25 years earlier in a small location.  He is a wonderful example of an entrepreneur – in both the positive and negative sense of the word!  Our firm was first engaged with Wayne (not his real name of course) to conduct a culture audit of his company.  He had the idea that he wanted his employees, all 500 of them, to share the same values as he did, and if they did, he reasoned, each and every one of them would represent to customers, fellow employees and others in the community the exact kind of behavior and service that he desired.  A very noble endeavor indeed!

One of the key values Wayne desired was to ensure that everyone felt empowered to make suggestions to improve the way the company was run.  In interviews and surveys we conducted with the employees, it was quite surprising for Wayne to learn that more than three-quarters of management and employees felt that good ideas came only from Wayne!  I had the opportunity to sit in on a few executive committee meetings and observed that whenever someone asked a question or offered even the simplest suggestion, all the “leaders” in the room would immediately look to Wayne to get his facial reaction, and he never disappointed them!

When I shared this observation with him in private, he was unaware of this behavior and did not intend to control the group as he did.  He truly wanted to have lively discussions and build buy-in to ideas and action plans discussed at these meetings.  What he actually received was far from it, rather it was a text-book example of top-down decision making.

I have worked with many other clients with similar unintentional behaviors.  Key leadership behaviors to prevent what Russ refers to as “faux collaboration” include:

•    Openness and honesty – if you have already made up your mind, tell the group that so that precious time is not wasted and discussions that are in effect irrelevant.
•    Real desire to listen to other points of view – the higher up you go, the less detail you have if you are an effective leader and the more you need to rely on those who have the real information.  It is not a sign of weakness to ask questions, seek information and welcome varying opinions.
•    Healthy conflict is good conflict – Pat Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team deal with this topic.  The inability to have a healthy, open discussion about a topic is a sign of distrust among the team.  The key to gaining buy-in is to have the healthy discussion and let everyone have a say
•    Ask for input – sometimes, the quieter ones in the room are the ones who have the best perspective, better information or just plain better judgment than those who want to control the discussion.

What other behaviors have you found successful to get real commitment from your team?