How do no-decision managers survive in organisations

If one can accept that no-decision managers exist in organisations, never making decisions, the next hurdle to overcome is: “How on earth do they manage to survive in the long term?” Back to the eight no-decision managers that I worked with: four were fired, most probably because they were discovered as being no-decision managers. The other four either retired as no-decision managers or are still working in their organisations today. So, not only do they exist and survive, but some have successful careers. Furthermore, two of these managers were in top management and two were promoted into top management positions.

No-decision managers are invariably intelligent, friendly and politically astute and with these characteristics they all construct a specific strategy for survival. Some however can make a career from being fired from time to time. The first no-decision boss I worked for, was a director in charge of a department covering all counries in Europe, and I realise now, that he did not have the one characteristic, that of being politically astute, to enable him to survive in the long term. Every three to four years, he was fired, undoubtedly because he was a no-decision manager, however he managed to find equivalent positions all over Europe until he retired.

No-decision managers realise early in their careers that they need to put into place a strategy for survival in the long term. The more experienced no-decision managers all have a common three-pronged strategy involving: 1) acquiring expertise, 2) gathering information, and 3) building privileged relationships.

Acquiring expertise

The first prong is expertise. No-decision managers need to be brilliant at something. It does not matter what it is, but with this expertise, they become known throughout the company to be the expert on this particular subject and are consulted frequently.

If they do not have such expertise, the generalist no-decision managers in top management who have survived without taking decisions for say, more than ten years, excel in three core skills: ‘great’ analysis, ‘great’ knowledge of the company, and ‘great’ understanding of the people in their organisation. I have called this concept ‘hiding in excellence’. It is used by no-decision managers to take attention away from their major inability: that of not making decisions.

All the senior no-decision manager’s that I worked with, were experts in analysing complicated situations: ‘great analysis’. They are able to develop, analyse and evaluate alternatives in the decision-making process right up to the moment of the final decision, and write a comprehensive and clear report, but without, of course, making a recommendation. ‘Great’ knowledge, for a top no-decision manager involves being an expert about the business, the competition and the technology and in middle management, they are experts in their field, especially in technology. No-decision managers spend time on developing a ‘great’ understanding of key employees in the organisation, for instance: their roles, their motivations, and their skills.

Gathering information

These three core skills give no-decision managers access to the second prong, which is information. This prong involves collecting information on their subordinates and any of the people in the organisation who know they are no-decision managers. They do this by setting up specialised ‘informal internal networks’ within the organisation designed to collect information. Through their networks they are able to monitor what people say about their decision avoidance and who they say it to. The information that they are managers who never decide, is bound to circulate within the organisation and will eventually reach the boss of the no-decision manager.  They are able to monitor the information circulating about them and then are ready with a clear answer or explanation when their boss confronts them about a ‘no-decision’ situation.

Building privileged relationships

Finally, all long-serving no-decision managers without exception are masters at managing their bosses. This ultimate survival prong is not simply applying the now well-documented tactics stated in management textbooks on the subject. They master these and then go further. They build special relationships not only with their own boss, but the boss’s boss and a few selected key opinion leaders in the company, usually in headquarters. They manage and filter information before it reaches their bosses. They analyse the boss’s preferences, habits and even their decision-making styles, and then adapt their own behaviours to optimise their no-decision security needs. Ultimately, they become their boss’s most brilliant subordinate.

No-decision managers cannot survive everywhere

But no-decision managers learn, through experience, that they cannot survive in certain types of organisations or as subordinates of certain types of bosses. Organisations with decentralised decision-making, for instance, reject no-decision managers. These companies have a method of operating which encourages initiative, welcomes risk-taking and requires managers at all levels to decide on their own. Here, timely decision-making is key. No-decision managers cannot operate in this type of environment. ‘Hiding in excellence’ does not work and their complete lack of decision-making will quickly show up.

No-decision managers can never work for another no-decision manager as their boss. Two hierarchical levels of no-decision management bring any organisation or department to a complete standstill and create extreme frustration in subordinates. But above all, management will quickly detect a double level of no decision-making, and the more senior no-decision manager will ensure that the blame for non-decisions lies with the no-decision subordinate, who will be dismissed.

No-decision managers can never work for a ‘micro-manager’ as their boss. The ‘micro-manager’ boss exercises excessive control over subordinates and goes into minute detail about everything. They take so much control, that they make all the decisions, which in theory is a perfect situation for the no-decision manager. Unfortunately, because they go into so much detail, they give the no-decision subordinate numerous minor decisions to make quickly, which is quite impossible for any no-decision manager to cope with.

Finally no-decision managers cannot have the top job in any organisation. In commercial and profit-oriented organisations the top position is usually the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or President. In government it is the President or the Prime Minister. The top job often reports to a committee, a board of directors or a board of trustees. People in these top positions make decisions all the time, so no-decision managers exclude themselves from going too high in an organisation into positions which by definition require decision-makers. At the next level down, however, no-decision managers can and do survive.

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