Leaders make two types of decisions. They are either conscious decisions or unconscious decisions. The former are traits of true leaders the latter are traits of phoney leaders.
Conscious decisions are made with the data at hand the risks understood and the implications of the risk known with possible contingencies built into the decision. Conscious decisions are made despite the risk or at times because of the potential reward that goes with the risk.
Taking conscious decisions does not always require courage but undoubtedly at times it does. Taking a conscious decision to go against the trend, to go against advice because you know that it is right and the consequences will be personal takes courage.
Too often the courage is missing. Instead of deciding what to do having understood the risk, conscious “Decisions” are made to defer a decision. These decisions have a flip side, the unconscious decision. It is the unconscious decision that people see and follow.
The committee chairman who habitually refers even the most minor matters to review by a sub committee even when all the data is present, makes an unconscious decision to be completely risk averse and delays potential benefits of the decision.
In addition, the organisation is prevented from gathering data about the impact of the decision to refine it with experience. If failure is possible, I would rather fail quickly and knowingly than slowly and obliviously.
If the committee chairman is someone senior as is the case in most circumstances, the other members of the committee will also learn to be risk averse.
The leader who does not complete the performance appraisal on time is making an unconscious decision that performance appraisals are not important. Given that there is between a month and a year to plan appraisal and feedback sessions, postponing them or missing them all together is a signal of their lack of importance.
Missing them twice is a red flashing light that may be interpreted not only as a lack of importance of the process but what the leader thinks about the individual. The unconscious decision appears so clear it may be seen as an conscious decision. Worse still, the leader is unlikely to be told what the staff thinks. The leader will be oblivious of the impact of their unconscious decision.
The management team that espouses one set of values on the plaque on the wall and in the annual report or corporate plan and demonstrates different values make an unconscious decision that the values are unimportant. No amount of internal marketing, cajoling or disciplining of staff will make them believe that the values are important.
When leaders discipline staff for not displaying the values that they themselves do not demonstrate an unconscious is decision is made that the important thing is to have the appearance of alignment with the values. Human beings are the most creative animals on the planet. They will work out a way of not being disciplined and not placing any importance on the values.
The marketing manager who has qualitative, quantitative data and risk management plan to support a decision to introduce a radical new product which will change the shape of the market and anger competitors and decides to complete more analysis is making an unconscious decision to maintain the status quo. An unconscious decision is made to not to be a leader, but to be a follower.
The impact of these unconscious decisions sometimes can be far reaching. Market share gains are foregone. Income is foregone. The ability to reinvest that income is foregone. Brand awareness is foregone.
When leaders make a conscious decision to not discipline a staff member for a serious breach in company policy because of the potential industrial backlash, an unconscious decision is made that breaches in company policy are unimportant.
One reason that many people make these poor unconscious decisions is that they tend to think to far ahead about their decisions.
It is good to look five or ten decisions ahead if you can and do contingency planning around each decision. Developing a decision tree into the future is a good practice for higher risk projects.
However, each decision must be made on its own. Making one decision with ten future decisions such as “what will they think?” or “what will they do?” in mind will inevitably force a conservative mindset and a postponement of the initial decision. The approach should be to anticipate the decisions which may need to be made and consciously decide each time on the merits of the current facts.
Another reason some leaders make a host of decisions where the unconscious decisions send a much stronger message than the conscious decision is ignorance. They fail to recognise that weak conscious decisions have a flip side of strong unconscious decisions.