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Leadership and Levels and Styles of Decision Making [Video]

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Leadership and Levels and Styles of Decision Making

Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Published October 01, 2018

Leadership and Levels and Styles of Decision Making

Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Picture of Jessica Wishart

Jessica Wishart
Senior Product Manager at Rhythm Systems

Where should we go to dinner? What time are you waking up? Where do you want to go on vacation? Leadership and Levels and Styles of Decision MakingAre you going to the gym before work? Should we pursue this or that business opportunity? How many people should we hire next year? Should we acquire this new company or sign with this new partner? What is our sales goal for next quarter? Should I fly to New York to try to save our biggest client account? How should our team devote our energy for the next 90 days?

Life is a series of decisions, big and small, that impact our lives, families, teams, and companies. If you follow our blog, you know that we talk a lot about the importance of developing and growing as leaders

I recently came across an HBR article on different decision-making styles for leaders. The authors studied different decision making styles in leaders at different levels of the organization from front-line supervisors to C-level executives. They found that styles differ in two major ways: how information is used and how options are created. 


They identified these 4 Decision Making Styles:

  • Decisive - Leaders using this style require little information, and they like to pursue one course of action. They make decisions fast, and are action focused, task oriented, direct, and firm. Once they make the decision, they stick with it.
  • Flexible - These leaders also require little information, but they like to pursue many options. They are perceived as more social and responsive. They also like to make decisions fast, but they do so in a way that adapts to shifting situations.
  • Hierarchic - These leaders require lots of data to make a decision, and they also prefer to pursue one course of action. They are perceived as highly intellectual, analytical and focused. They take their time to make a final decision that stands test of time.
  • Integrative - These leaders also require lots of data, but they like to pursue many options. They have a more creative, participative style. They usually frame the situation more broadly and want to consider it from all sides. For them, making a decision is a process, not an event, and the decision can evolve over time as circumstances change.

Of course, these styles are fluid, and we all use various styles at different times depending on the situation. Interestingly, leaders don’t necessary act the way they think; they may use different decision making styles in public than they would if they were alone. But, the researchers found strong correlation between certain styles and the position of the leaders; successful leaders higher in the organization tended to adopt a certain decision making style profile:

"We found that decision-making profiles do a complete flip over the course of a career: That is, the decision style of a successful CEO is the opposite of a successful first-line supervisor’s. In the leadership (or public) mode, we see a steady progression as managers move up in the ranks toward openness, diversity of opinion, and participative decision making, matched by a step-by-step drop in the more directive, command-oriented styles. In the thinking (or private) mode, we see a progression toward the maximizing styles—where an executive prefers to gather a lot of information and think things through—and, at the highest executive levels, an uptick in the styles favoring one course of action. "

So, the decision making style that may serve you very well in your current role may not work for you as you continue to advance in your career, and as your company grows and your role changes. While it is important for front-line managers to be decisive, it is critical for C-level executives to take a more flexible and integrative approach to decision-making where they seek out more input and compile more information before making a decision. As they say in the article, "It’s essential to use a leadership style that keeps the information pipeline open and the data flowing freely, so you have access to the best information and analysis.” Senior executives need to foster an environment where people are willing to contribute information, ideas and options so a more open and interactive leadership style is key. Then, often, senior executives take the information they’ve accumulated and consider and analyze it to attempt to make one best decision or narrow down the choices to a few top options on their own. 

In thinking about your preferred decision-making style, it is just as important to be clear on the approach or level of decision making that you are operating under. If you are using an integrative style to gather a lot of information from your team, but then want to be the one who ultimately makes that decision, it is important to be clear when you’re brainstorming and considering options that you will be ultimately accountable for the decision, not the consensus of the group. This clarity can help prevent frustration from your team if you make a decision that does not seem in alignment with their input.

As part of our Keep Smart core value, our coaching team recently had the pleasure of attending a training from Susan Silvers on sharpening our facilitation skills. One of the big takeaways from the training for me that is relevant here is regarding levels of decision-making. Any time you’re involved in making an important decision, it is good to be clear up front about which level of decision-making you’re using so that you and the team are clear about who’s accountable for the decision and how it will ultimately be made.

Here are the Levels of Decision-Making:

  • Level 1: Directive - This is a decision that the leader completely owns. The leader may or may not seek input or ideas from the team; ultimately, this decision rests solely with the leader.
  • Level 2: Consultative - This is also a decision that the leader owns, but one in which the leader actively seeks insights, advice, and ideas from one or multiple team members or experts. This decision also ultimately rests with the leader.
  • Level 3: Consensus - This is a decision that the leadership team owns together. The entire team gives input and agrees to do whatever the team agrees is the best decision.
  • Level 4: Delegated - This is a decision that the leader gives ownership of to someone else. That person is entirely accountable for making the decision and implementing it. The leader does not need to be involved.

As a leader, you can make decisions using all four of these levels, but communicating to the team which level you are using before the decision making process begins is important. Frequently choosing one level of decision making over the others could indicate your preferred leadership style (for example, if you like to use Level 3 for most decisions, you may have a more integrative style. If you like to use Level 1 for most decisions, you may have a more decisive style. Level 2 might be the preferred choice for more hierarchic styles.)

Considering your preferred decision making style as well as the pros and cons of the different styles and levels for your current (and future) leadership roles can help you become aware of potential blindspots or gaps in your leadership skills and capabilities. You may need to challenge yourself to use different decision making levels where appropriate to flex your more integrative or hierarchical decision-making muscles, depending on what your own developmental needs might be. Just food for thought as you go into making that next decision!

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If you enjoyed this post, check out these additional resources:

The Five C's of Team Accountability

Team Accountability Begins with Personal Accountability

Building Team Accountability: Job Scorecards

10 Signs of an Accountable Culture [Infographic]

Growing Accountability in Your Organization

Quick Tips for Building Accountability

5 Steps to Having an Accountability Discussion [Video]

Learn more about accountable leaders and teams.

Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Editor's Note: This blog was originally posted on June 2, 2015 and has been updated.