How decision inequality sets flexible work up to fail

Lachy Gray, 5 min read

How decision inequality sets flexible work up to fail

I think one of the big issues in the modern workplace is decision inequality. Which for me is an inability for employees to make impactful decisions in their day to day roles because they don’t have the information and/or ownership they need to do so.


I see it all the time. What I perceive to be a low impact, quick, reversible decision can’t be made by just one person. It has to “go up the line” and be shopped around to multiple stakeholders for buy-in and input. This adds lag time and can strip away ownership (and enthusiasm!) the original decision maker had. If we consider that as knowledge workers we make hundreds of decisions a day, it’s inevitable that this strict and gated process promotes reactive and slow decision making.


Unfortunately this gated decision process does not play well with flexible work. How can it?!


Flexible work requires us to choose when and where we do our best work. It gives us ownership over our decisions and the right information to make the best decisions for us, our team, our family and our company. A gated decision process slows this down by design. It dilutes ownership and restricts information sharing.


Although Yarno is a young company and we (now) subscribe to decision equality, as the team grew we found ourselves with a big ugly gated decision process.


Our team were coming to me to ask if they could work from home, take leave etc. I was frustrated thinking I’m not the best person to make these decisions. I don’t have all the context and it’s the team who’s going to be impacted, so they’re the best people to communicate with. Don’t ask me!


Then I realised that our team were following a process that I had unknowingly created. I was the instigator of my own grief!  What could I do to fix it?

The decision process

12 months ago, after much reading and experimentation we created a decision process. It's a set of steps that when followed enables anyone in the team to make their own decision about working remotely or taking leave.


The big change is that instead of asking a senior Yarnoer or team lead for permission, we give the team a heads up of our intentions.


So we say “I intend to work from home tomorrow” rather than “Can I work from home tomorrow?”. If the team are happy, they can give a simple thumbs up. If they have concerns or questions, that conversation happens before alerting the wider team.


This simple tweaking of words has had a big impact. It’s changed our mindset and empowered us to own our decisions.


I first read about this approach in Turn the Ship Around!, a book written by David Marquet, an ex US Submarine commander. As you can imagine, the Navy has a very strict, top down hierarchy where the commander of the ship has absolute authority. Traditionally this was seen as critical for maintaining discipline and order in a potentially life and death environment. To make a decision crew members were required to ask for permission from their senior.


Marquet however saw it differently. He wanted everyone in his crew to be a leader and he knew that to achieve this they’d have to make their own decisions. So he gave his crew ownership over their decisions by removing the need for them to ask permission, and replacing it with stating an intention.


Key ingredients for success

In my experience encouraging team members to make their own decisions requires a few things.


Trust

There’s a core assumption here that people will do the right thing. That they’ll do what they say they’ll do. My approach to this has always been to treat people how I’d want to be treated. This includes trusting them from an early stage, even before I truly know and understand them. This sounds risky even as I write it! But I think placing trust in someone early communicates that I believe they can do the right thing and I hope it motivates them to do their best work. It’s how I would want to be treated.


Empathy

As humans our lives are pretty crazy. Uncertainty and change are inevitable, and everyone has things going on outside of work that are on their mind yet they can’t control. I think we know this yet it’s easy to forget it when “busyness” sets in, and the inevitable feeling of not enough time rears its head.


I have to work hard to step outside my own little world of busyness, to see things from my team’s perspective and to empathise with their situation. Especially when they have something going on in their life that means they need to work flexibly or take time off. The timing may not suit the business but we’re committed to making it work for each other.


I recently read Satya Nadella's (the CEO of Microsoft) fantastic book, Hit Refresh. I was surprised to see Nadella consistently talk about the value of empathy. Surprised because I don't think I've ever heard a Fortune 500 CEO mention the word, let along devote a book to it! His message is refreshing and inspires hope.


"I like to think that the C in CEO stands for culture. The CEO is the curator of an organisation’s culture. Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission." - Satya Nadella


Excellent communication

We’re discovering that we can’t rely on real-time communication because not everyone is working at the same time. We’re working through this scenario at the moment and while it feels like a challenge it’s also an opportunity. To slow things down, to encourage us to think about what we’re asking for and adding enough context so that it makes sense to other people reading.
This is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves how we want

to communicate with each other. Real-time communication is helpful when things need to be discussed and actioned right now. Yet it contributes to busy, reactive work and task switching - none of which help us produce great work.


I like how Basecamp approach this. They’ve written a guide to internal communication for their team, that anyone can access on their website. The fact that they’re willing to share this with the world speaks volumes about how they communicate. The bulk of their commutation is in written form rather than spoken.
Writing solidifies, chat dissolves. Substantial decisions start and end with an exchange of complete thoughts, not one-line-at-a-time jousts. If it's important, critical, or fundamental, write it up, don't chat it down.

You can read their guide here.


Wrap up

It can feel scary to hand decision making over, yet this uncertainty and fear can be repaid many times over as employees respect and appreciate being treated as a human being!


If the thought of your people making their own decisions strikes you with fear (as it initially did for me), this exercise may help. It can be quite cathartic actually.
On a whiteboard or piece of paper, write “When I think about delegating this decision, I worry that…”. Then complete the sentence, as many times as you like. It’s a helpful way to extract what’s spinning around in your head and it gives you the space to work through each one. There’s something about writing fears down that reduces their hold.


I invite you to consider if decision inequality is present in your organisation. I think if we can get this right, if we can trust each other to make our own decisions we’ll all be better for it.


Lachy Gray

Lachy's our Managing Director. He's our resident rationalist and ideas man. He also reads way too many books for our liking.

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