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Decision making in the federal government

According to the latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government data, effective leadership is one of the keys to employee satisfaction and commitment. Yet in the federal government, satisfaction with leadership has been low and is slipping. Government wide, only four out of 10 employees feel empowered with respect to their work processes—and slightly less than half said that they were involved in decisions affecting their work.

Tom Fox spoke with leadership expert Dennis Bakke about steps federal managers can take to make their employees feel more empowered in the decision-making process. Bakke is the co-founder of Imagine Schools and is the author of "The Decision Maker: Unlock the Potential of Everyone in Your Organization, One Decision at a Time." Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. Why is decision making a key management concept?

Dennis Bakke is the cofounder of Imagine Schools and the author of "The Decision Maker" (photo courtesy of Dennis Bakke). Dennis Bakke is the cofounder of Imagine Schools and the author of "The Decision Maker" (photo courtesy of Dennis Bakke).

A. Nothing tells you more about an organization than the way its employees make decisions, and nothing affects an organization more than the decisions its employees make. Decision making is the best way in the world to develop people. When leaders put control in the hands of their people, at all levels, they unlock immense potential. However, too few leaders tap into this value.

What are the consequences of allowing the leader to make all the important decisions in an organization?

Early on in my career as a leader, I thought leadership was bosses making all the important decisions. However, I quickly realized that the more decisions I made, the less engaged my employees became, and the less ownership they had in the results. The problem I found was that leaders were not always the best equipped to make all decisions. Oftentimes, they aren’t the closest to the situation, and they’re not the people most affected by a decision. Employees who are closest to the situation are usually the best informed about the personalities and factors involved, and they have the most at stake. Furthermore, leaders don’t always make use of the perspectives and expertise of those who are closest to the situation. They instead use top-down leadership that enforces procedures and rules.

Describe your concept of the decision-maker organization.

It is founded on the idea that all of us can make good decisions, not just people who currently lead organizations. When you turn the organizational chart upside down, the senior person becomes the chief adviser rather than the chief decision maker. In a decision-maker organization, the leader chooses someone to make a key decision, that person seeks advice (including from the leader) to gather information and multiple perspectives, and then the final decision is not made by the leader but by the chosen decision-maker who takes responsibility for the final outcome.

What should a federal leader consider when choosing a decision-maker?

First is proximity. Who’s closest to the issue? Are they well acquainted with the context, the day-to-day details and the big picture? Second is perspective. As much as proximity matters, so does perspective. Sometimes an outside perspective can be just as valuable. Third is experience. Has this person had experience making similar decisions? What were the consequences of those decisions? The final one is wisdom. What kinds of decisions has this person made in other areas? Were they good ones? Does the leader have confidence in this person?

Why do you believe the decision-maker concept makes organizations more successful?

As a leader, when I started encouraging people to make big decisions, they naturally did a better job. Our ability as human beings to think, reason, make decisions and hold ourselves accountable allows us to be capable of all kinds of things. If you get every employee to take ownership of their work and believe “this is my government and I’m going to do whatever it takes to make this thing better,” they are going to go the extra mile to do so because it’s theirs.

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Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.



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