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Managing Up: Indecision and Hand Wringing

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Managing Up: Indecision and Hand Wringing

Sound judgement, self-assurance, good decision making. These are the qualities people in leadership roles typically possess.

So what about the bosses who missed the memo that it’s their responsibility to make decisions that move the organization forward?

It can be maddening to work for a manager who is a chronic hand-wringer – take it from us, we have first-hand experience.

Finding ways to effectively work with him or her (the practice of managing up) is critical for you and your organization.

Not deciding is still a decision – with consequences

Managers need time to digest information and ask clarifying questions when making decisions.  A reasonable amount of time for additional research and analysis is part of the process. In fact, really good managers will challenge aspects of the data and typically this leads to a stronger decision all around.

However, the manager who will not make a decision no matter how much research, data and analysis you present is inexcusable. Have you ever had the misfortune of working for one of these? He or she just sits there like the Sphinx stonewalling you at every turn with excuses like:

  • I have been traveling and I have not had a chance to review it.
  • Could we also have another look at the numbers with a new growth rate?
  • Let’s change the time horizon and see what that looks like.
  • We don’t want to cause any political uneasiness in the office, so let’s wait it out.
  • How about we create a task force to take a deeper dive.
  • I have indigestion and can’t possibly make a decision right now.

Toss over some Tums and let’s get on with it.

Some managers are always indecisive.  They wring their hands over every decision that lands on their desk, leaving you to wonder how in the hell they made it this far. We’ll call this manager Hand Wringing Henry.

The other way this behavior manifests is situational indecision. This manager is not habitually indecisive, but has in fact encountered a situation with complex factors making the decision difficult. We’ll call this one Indecisive Debbie.

Hand-Wringing Henry

Hand-Wringing Henry struggles with every decision including the easy ones like approving vacation time. He seems to take in every factor in the universe, calculates the risks of each (like the increased likelihood a meteor will hit if he decides one way vs. another) and then elects to do nothing for fear of making the wrong decision.

The flaw here is twofold:  first, Henry takes into account too many unnecessary factors; and second, he fears the consequences of a bad decision. This makes managing up really tough because logic is out the window.

There are three key elements to manage up under these circumstances.

  • Go slow. Hand-Wringing Henry doesn’t like to be rushed. In fact, he will become completely paralyzed if you push too hard.
  • Focus on the results. You’re going to have to sell it to Hand-Wringing Henry in a way that helps him see that the benefits of proceeding far outweigh the pitfalls of doing nothing.
  • Put it in writing. Yes, this again. Given that it will likely take several conversations and extensive documentation to get a decision—if you get one at all—be sure to keep your emails and a record of every conversation. There are two purposes for this.
    • Hand-Wringing Henry will likely “forget” what you’ve already discussed and ask for it again which is often a delay tactic. There is nothing more powerful than forwarding him a prior email or meeting notes from previous discussions.
    • If the decision is important to the organization or will be part of your annual performance review, you want to make sure the documentation shows that you’ve fulfilled your responsibilities to the extent that you were allowed.

Indecisive Debbie

Indecisive Debbie is the easier of the two to navigate as the problem is situational rather than systemic. Once you understand the specific reason behind the indecision you can partner with her to work toward the solution.

If Indecisive Debbie does not voluntarily share the concerns behind her indecision you’ll first need to draw that out. Taking a direct approach is best. For example, “Debbie, (you should probably leave the “Indecisive” label out when addressing her, wink) are there factors that I’m not aware of that are causing you concern?”

Once you have a clearer understanding of the situation, begin a dialogue in which you explore ways you may be able to mitigate the factors. Regardless of the situation, do not underestimate your ability to help. Sometimes just being a sounding board is important.  

In this scenario you may actually build a stronger working relationship with Debbie through your commitment to partnering with her. Any decent manager will agree that these are some of the most valuable workplace skills you can possess. This is an excellent opportunity to help Debbie solve a problem and demonstrate your critical thinking skills and commitment to the team.

Effectively managing up to an indecisive boss can be the difference between doing your job and doing it well. Honing the skill of encouraging anyone to make good decisions is worth the effort and will benefit you in all aspects of your career.

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