by Natalie Lehr
When employees don’t have enough information about projects or goals, the fog of indecision can settle in – people make the wrong decisions, or no decisions at all. In the corporate landscape, many employees aren’t given enough business context to be able to spot or distinguish threats and opportunities. They’re unable or unwilling to make critical decisions without being told what to do. That inability to act decisively can be crippling. Sometimes staffers fail to make informed decisions in the moment because they haven’t been given the training or the autonomy to do so. Employees too often decide that, because they can’t see clearly on all sides, they can’t move – even if the spot upon which they’re standing is the worst place to be.
At the company I co-founded, where several members of our leadership team have special ops and intelligence backgrounds, we’ve adopted a military phrase to describe the behavior we want to see from employees when it comes to decision-making: “Get off the X.” In the military, this roughly equates to “stop being a target and become an agent.” In our business context, we use it to describe making critical decisions the moment innovative action is needed, without waiting for a supervisor to sign off. To sustain a decision-making culture and avoid tunnel vision, employees need autonomy, training, awareness, responsibility, trust, and agility. In our company, an enterprise security provider, this is how we ensure our employees avoid the fog of decision-making so they can get off the X and move the whole business forward:
Encourage teams to work outside their own silos. One way to burn off the fog around decision-making is to nurture cross-functional capabilities. In doing so, employees are able to view challenges from multiple vantages, rather than solely through the lens of individual domains. People are less likely to be paralyzed by the unknown. We push our team members to broaden their areas of expertise so they can adopt different perspectives when problem-solving. For instance, an employee in data loss prevention might attack her own system to find any weak spots. So rather than trying to find solutions once a breach or loss arises (i.e., reacting defensively), she goes on the offensive to circumvent a problem altogether.
Commit to the outcome, not the course. A predetermined course can’t anticipate all risks. We need employees who can make decisions based on imperfect, but optimized, situational awareness, and who can then pivot when those factors change. We saw this recently when an employee implemented data classification and identity access management programs for a client. In doing so, he noted a host of defections because the security policies didn’t adequately account for the specific activities and needs of the affected business units. As a result, he had to slightly shift his focus to help the client align its security policies with the business context.
Reward teams and individuals for “Getting off the X.” At our company, we link performance ratings and training opportunities to excellence in client delivery. We also use incentives to promote quick thinking and flexibility. To recognize team efforts, we not only provide traditional financial awards, we also memorialize strategic contributions at a corporate level in our “all-hands” meetings. And to emphasize the message that there is no place at a start-up for passive employees, we also give out a quarterly “Get off the X” award to individuals. One winner was a mid-level analyst whose main responsibilities were technical, but who proactively supported a corporate development initiative. Everyone is focused on spotting and celebrating decisive action. We get nominees for the award from all over the company. Our employees know that empowerment comes with the responsibility to not only identify challenges, but to respond to them.
Of course, there are limits to this practice of acting quickly, without supervisor approval – it must focus on areas where employees have sufficient training to know what to do. But inaction is rarely the right choice in high-stakes moments. Because the hazard zones for businesses, particularly emerging ones, are ever-changing, it’s crucial to equip employees to be more agile and inventive. To grow a successful company, make sure your employees know how to get off the X when it counts.
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