Authoritarianism is on the rise.
No, this isn’t one of KJR’s occasional thinly disguised political rants. I’m talking about private-sector authoritarianism.
- Consensus: We all agree to it, even if we don’t all agree with it.
- Consultation: Everyone with a stake in the decision shares their knowledge with the decision-maker and then trusts the decision-maker’s decision.
- Authoritarianism: The decision-maker makes the decision and announces it.
- Voting: There’s safety in numbers, so let’s just tally them. Nobody can blame the decision-maker for the wisdom of crowds.
- Delegation: Turn the decision over to someone else and ask them to make it using one of the remaining four ways to make a decision. It’s the remaining four because delegated decisions shouldn’t be re-gifted.
These five decision styles aren’t a matter of preference, or shouldn’t be. They have very different characteristics. Consensus maximizes buy-in; authoritarianism is quick and cheap; consultation strikes a balance between the two. Done right, delegation puts decisions in the hands of those better-qualified to make them.
Voting has little to recommend it, other than providing a way out when no one person has the authority to make a decision that has to get made anyway.
A couple of decades ago, consensus decision-making became popular in executive circles, pulling consultation and delegation along with it. The theory was that more employees felt empowered … they felt more influence over decisions that affected them … and so would bring more energy and commitment to their work.
It wasn’t a bad theory as these things go. So far as I can tell, though, it’s falling out of favor. Authoritarian decision-making appears, based on my entirely subjective perception that’s the result of an at best accidentally non-random sample of What’s Going On Out There, to be increasingly popular. Consensus and consultative decision-making, in contrast, are more and more associated with group hand-holding coupled with Kumbaya and the singing thereof.
My sense is that this shift away from high-involvement techniques is due to one or another of these three factors: (1) impatience (let’s get on with it); (2) arrogance (I know the right answer so let’s get on with it); and (3) ego (I’m smarter than anyone else involved, so no one has anything important to tell me about the subject that I don’t already know. I know the right answer so let’s get on with it).
Meanwhile, delegation continues to be used but not really. I’m seeing an increase in de-delegation as a fraction of all delegated decisions, de-delegation meaning “I’m delegating this decision to you unless you don’t make the decision I would have made or don’t make it the way I would have made it.”
Delegation, that is, is becoming little more than authoritarianism in disguise.
Is this trend, assuming it is a trend and not just an example of KJR being guilty of plausible blame, really such a bad thing? After all, we all know business is speeding up and authoritarianism’s core value is speed.
True enough. And as OODA devotees will agree, faster decisions, all things being equal, speed up the whole loop, leading to more wins and demoralized competitors.
The problem is, not all things are equal. Slapdash information-gathering (observe) and a poor understanding of context (orient) — natural consequences of authoritarian decision-making — lead to uninformed and poorly thought-through decisions. There’s nothing in OODA theory suggests that, faced with a set of possible choices, any old decision will do.
OODA theory is about speeding up each step in the cycle without diminishing its quality, so you complete the loop with just-as-good information, an undiminished sense of place, decisions that are just as smart, and actions just as disciplined and competent.
And one more thing: OODA, and for that matter most of what’s been written about the importance of speeding things up, is silent on the subject of buy-in. In the interest of filling this gap:
What’s needed to achieve buy-in might very well slow down one or two early OODA iterations.
But failing to achieve buy-in in these early iterations can slow down the iterations that follow. After all, managers and employees whose primary motivational state is apathy are, when the time comes for action, less likely to bring the energy needed for getting the desired results quickly and efficiently.
The difference, it’s said, between ignorance and apathy is “I don’t know” and “I don’t care.”
The other difference is ownership: Authoritarians own the ignorance. Apathy is the logical employee response.