From solving competing priorities that are affecting your resources to when to ratchet up the risk management opportunities on a high profile project that is approaching a critical deadline, as a MidWest IT manager, you are constantly forced to make decisions. IT Engineers are also constantly making decisions, but the impact has a slightly more narrow focus where as, an IT Manager’s decisions have a much wider, more macro focus. Plenty of the IT Manager’s job stress is directly related to having to constantly make decisions that have a macro as opposed to micro impact within the organization. This article touches on some considerations for IT Managers to judge when one is solely empowered to make a decision compared to when it is more appropriate to solicit feedback from peers and senior management prior to making a decision in an effort to reduce that stress. Or more simply, as the article is titled, an attempt to help you reach out to your peers, staff and management to answer the question of how much decision latitude does an IT Manager have within their organization?
[Mild disclaimer ahead]
Now I am not referring to straight forward decisions such as how often to schedule team meetings or how long before email responses would be considered tardy. I’m referring to decisions that have a lasting or strategic impact. Examples such as is it the right time to switch resellers or approval to kick off an expansive systems upgrade project or whether your team should provide an additional service that the organization is requesting that has new hardware, additional licensing and staff increase associated costs. These are stress inducing examples. Making say, a service extension decision autonomously, could land you in hot water when your boss finds out that, to be successful, you need more money and staff than the budget allows, yet the rest of the organization is moving forward assuming you are providing the new service. Ever sit in an IT managers meeting with a cross department attendee list to sort out ownership of key services that need to come together to meet a new, high profile business need and watch a manager proverbially step right in front of a speeding bus by agreeing to provide a solution that everyone around the table knows they should have consulted their management prior to agreeing? This sounds like the start of a series of high stress post meeting discussions.
Lastly, this article isn’t meant to be a step by step guide to stress reduction based on an all encompassing decision making strategy. This article is more of series of considerations and possible approaches that might suggest a more structured approach to decision making rather than pure trial and error.
[End of mild disclaimer]
In my Internet wanderings, I came across this definition of decision latitude and its link to work stress:
“…the ability to make work-related decisions. When employees can make decisions related to the way they work, they are able to devise coping strategies than can mitigate the effects of stress” (Halpern, D.F., 159). *
Applying this perspective that how a MidWest IT Manager approaches the decision making process directly correlates to the amount of job stress experienced, one could simply extrapolate:
- Effective decision making, less stress
- Ineffective decision making, more stress
Note: I don’t think anyone could make the claim that effective decision making can eliminate all stress. Rather, effective decision making can only reduce stress given some level of stress is involved in all decision making and as a manger; you are constantly put in a position to make decisions. Ineffective decisions lead to an increase in problems or issues that force one to have to make even more decisions, thus repeating the cycle and in the process, bumping up the stress level each time. Thus, if you find your job to be exceedingly stressful, have you stepped back and considered how effectively you are making decisions?
Consideration #1 = Boss, what can and can’t I decide?
The very first consideration is, for your role within your organization, what are you empowered to decide and what requires three committee reviews and seventeen signatures on a company form in order to decide? Every company culture is different. Plus, the larger the organization, the more cultural elements of the organization trickle down from division to department to group to team such that a role in one department might have a radically different tolerance for autonomous decision making compared to the same role in another department within the same company. To make things even more challenging, with every reorganization or incremental leadership change at some higher level within the organization starts an eventual shift in the autonomous versus group decision making abilities.
So, how does one sort all this out within your organization? Well, if anyone has a silver bullet answer for this one, I would appreciate hearing it. In my experience, this is an ever evolving process of pro-actively seeking feedback coupled with reflection on the results of decisions made. The most immediate source of proactive feedback is your direct manager. If you are new to an organization or you find yourself suddenly reporting to a new manager, you may want to consider putting a high priority on this following example exchange within your first, formal one-on-one discussion:
You to your New Manager: “One topic I would like to cover is how you see this role empowered to make decisions within the purview of the team and the services it provides to the organization versus when I need your or others involvement. As an example, in my prior role/organization/management relationship/etc., given a situation such as <insert example of recent past where you were completely empowered to make a decision without any additional peripheral involvement>, I was able to make decision X without having to involve anyone else and I knew I would have the support of my management. In another example, < insert example of recent past where you had to involve your manager, peer managers, senior management, etc. prior to getting a decision made> I needed to directly involve my manager, peer managers and senior management in order to achieve a consensus on a decision. Can you share your expectations on how much decision latitude you foresee my role having that you would support? Follow up question, if a needed decision doesn’t fall within the parameters you see for this role, how best should I request your involvement in the decision making process?”
A couple nuances on this example exchange:
- Use of examples
If you asked directly what decisions you can and can’t make, you are likely to get an unhelpful response such as “I would expect you to make the decisions you feel necessary to get the job done” and then leaving your new boss with the impression you are somewhat weak since you had to ask such an open ended question. By sighting examples on both ends of the decision spectrum and the circumstances that lead up to your autonomous or consensus based decision, you provide your new boss with context as to why you are asking the question. The context created by the examples allows your new manager to consider your question within the realm of his or her leadership style. Plus, you will gain valuable insight into your new manager’s priorities and approach to their role. If your new manager suggests they need to be involved in every decision, you will get a clue they my have micromanagement tendencies or need to reach a level of trust before they are willing to allow you to function somewhat autonomously. If your new manager suggests they don’t need to be involved at all on anything, you maybe getting clues you are reporting to an “arm chair” or “Monday morning” quarterback manager who will need to be drug into decisions that they would otherwise enjoy you make and then criticize later.
- “Decisions you would support” caveat
The value of adding this to the end of your big question is to get what you really need from your new manager. Similar to clues you get from the context setting of your examples, what you are really looking for is your new manager to support your decisions not just allow you to make them. Having this phrase at the end of your question emphasizes this critical component of your question. You may want to consider the use body language and voice inflection to politely draw attention to these last few words so you ensure you have your managers focus on the words lest they are already formulating an answer based on your lead in statement to the question and examples.
- Follow up question on how best to engage your new boss
Equally critical is establishing some parameters around the best way to engage your new boss when they need to participate in making a decision. Again, you gain value insight into your new boss’s leadership style based on the answer. Equally important, as opposed to trial and error, you now have parameters by which you can engage your boss in decision making. Thus, as a situation pops up that requires you to make a decision, if it in any way meets this parameter, your stress level doesn’t have to rise significantly. Instead of stressing, start capturing the information needed and approach your boss as they outlined. Fight the immediate reaction of making a decision on the spot.
- Potentially the greatest value = the exchange itself
Just by having this exchange, you begin the process of establishing a level of trust with your new manager. They should begin to perceive you as one that values the reporting relationship as well as management pressures that exist at both your and your boss’s level. They should observe that you value their reputation and role within the organization through establishing these operating parameters. Just like you don’t appreciate having to navigate around a crazy decision made by one of your team members that puts you and your team in a bad place, your new boss does not look forward to having to respond to crazy decisions you make.
Finally, by having this exchange very early in the new reporting structure, you lay the ground work for on going dialog on the subject of management supported decision making until you reach that level of trust where the parameters and boundaries are firmly established. Sure, you could learn these parameters and boundaries through trial and error, but why endure the stress and proverbial bruises when asking a strategic set of questions that could avoid the entire steaming pile of cow dung associated with making a call you shouldn’t have made on your own plus have the side benefit of building valuable trust.
In the second part to this topic, look for considerations around how to involve peer managers and direct reports in extending you decision latitude purview.
* Halpern, D.F. (2005). How time-flexible work policies can reduce stress, improve health, and save money. Stress and Health (21), 157-168.