Managing by Compliance: The Case for Delegating Decision-making

The mother of all misconceptions about leadership is that it is all about what we do to someone else. Generally what we do to some else is to try to get them to think or behave the way we think and behave. That’s because our own behavior is to us familiar, comfortable and right – even when it is wrong.

Even when we are right, as many successful business owners and leaders typically, leaders that insist on compliance above all else, may be constraining the development of their people and the growth of the business – two of greatest and primary responsibilities of leaders! How many times in your own development have your heard, ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’, just do as you are told, or that how we do things here’.

Compliance implies obedience, conformity, subservience, or getting our people to yield to our authority, expectations or demands. While our business processes do and should create boundaries that ensure consistent results from our daily work, they don’t develop the capabilities in our people to think creatively or to solve problems.

When we insist that our people think or behave as we do, do as they are told or make all their decisions for them, they do not learn when, why or how to make decisions that advance the business, its processes or culture. Compliance stifles inspiration and creativity.

It is my opinion (emphasis added) that frequently leaders began their careers in small departments, companies or business units where they wore multiple hats, making decisions across a wind range of functional areas. As their responsibilities grew along with the company, many leaders continued to make all the decisions they always made.  Indeed many leaders made more decisions, never teaching and delegating decisions to those reporting to them.

The old maxim reminds us, ‘we can do anything, but we can’t do everything’. The owners and leaders that make all the decisions for the reason that they feel they must, that this is the way things get done here, or that our people can’t be trusted to make the right decision, should understand that making or controlling every decision is not leadership. Leadership is about finding and developing the talent that may be lying dormant in others.

More than once upon completing a situational assessment of their business, I have had to tell the leader: “well, I have good news and bad news. Good news is I’ve found the problem. Bad news is that the problem is YOU!

Again, the leader’s responsibility is to grow his business. To do that you must develop your people. If your company has seen no or only marginal growth over the last five or ten years, that’s the first sign your leadership style may be the cause. Here’s the tough question: are you really running the whole company or multiple key departments within it, or are you actually keeping your people from doing their jobs? It’s an honest question, one you need to ask yourself. The right answer frequently presents new opportunities for growth.

Changing Leadership Behaviors

If we always do what we’ve always done we’re always going to get what we always got! Stop it already. If you always make every decision in your business, you can expect the same results you’ve always gotten. If you want the same results, stop reading now and go back to work.

But, if you want and need better results read on. Recognizing you have a problem, that the problem is you, and that you really intend to fix it is always the hardest, most important step. Whether you are leading a department or the company, the best way to change the thinking and behavior of those that report to you is to change your own thinking.

If your management style has been based on getting others to comply with your way of doing things, think about the areas where those around you may have more experience or expertise than you in an issue requiring input and a decision. Seek their advice and ask them what decision they might make. They may surprise you.

Clear Expectations before Great Ones

As you begin delegate decision-making to your colleagues, make sure they understand your expectations for doing so. Let them know their boundaries for which decisions they can make and which ones they cannot.

You should also let them know why you want them to begin making decisions. The reasons should be clearly and directly linked to the mission of your business. The primary reason to delegate decision-making downward is to increase your own capacity work at a higher level on things that truly drive the business.

Other reasons for delegating decisions downward in the business include the speed and precision of response to a problem, improving customer serviceability, improving profitability or other measurable outcomes such as productivity.

Growth, productivity gains and improved profitability are all reasons for delegating decision-making downward. The impacts of good decisions are measurable and good, consistent measurements will help you and your colleagues gain confidence in their decision-making abilities.

Trust but Verify

When makings changes in organizational responsibilities, never assume, especially at the onset of the change, that things are getting done as you expected. Stay connected to your team and the decisions they are making are meeting expectations and fall within the boundaries you’ve set.

Start with small problems and simple decisions. Coach you staff in how you make decisions – the principles that guide your own decisions. Create and share measurements that gage progress as you relinquish some control over all the decisions that are made every day.

As the measurements verify the quality of their decisions, your trust in their ability to make sound decisions will grow. The more you delegate, the more time you will have to grow the business, The more your business is able to demonstrate growth, the greater the value it will have.

As a post script: if your organization is dependent on you for all the decisions that need to be made everyday, what happens when the time comes for you to leave or sell your business? Any qualified buyer will evaluate your staff. They will want to know they people managing the company are informed and capable decision-makers. If your management style is one based on compliance, experience not withstanding, your management team will have less value to a new owner.

If you need help improving the performance of your business, I can be reached at 608.270.8089 or