Who Makes the Tough Calls in a Collaborative Organization?

“Do we have to involve everyone in every decision for it to be collaborative? … Because if we do, I’m quitting my job.” I hear different versions of this question all the time. In the final weeks leading up to the launch of the Center for Efficient Collaboration, it showed up again – this time in a compelling story from a former-CEO-turned philanthropist. I’ll call him Brian.

We’d been introduced by a mutual friend who asked me to tell Brian about the breakthroughs I’d seen during my work on collaborative lawmaking in Minnesota. I sensed that Brian wasn’t deeply engaged. Indeed, he soon stopped me to express his doubts about the power of collaboration.

Brian told me about taking over a company when it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. He had an idea about how to turn things around, and he ran it by others. No one liked it. He went ahead with it, and some months later, everyone saw the benefits. This happened a number of times throughout his tenure as CEO, he told me, with what I saw as a mixture of pride and a sense of mystery and humility. The company went on to become a major success story. Had he listened to the others, Brian concluded, the company would have folded.

the buck stops here cropBrian’s point: in the end, someone needs to make the tough decisions, and that can only be one person. No matter how much collaboration there may be, how much listening to others, engaging with them, asking questions, or discussing options, the buck ultimately stops at some leader’s desk. And that leader’s unpopular decisions may have better results than anyone else expected.

Do leaders have to go it alone?

I love true-life puzzles, especially when they appear to throw into question something core to my belief system. So I thanked Brian for giving me a challenge I couldn’t immediately address, and I kept turning his story in my mind. Brian reminded me of another leader I was coaching a few years ago, the executive director of a cultural institution, whom I will call Alice. Alice knew that people were upset with her way of managing even though they all admired her at the same time. In one of our conversations she said, with full conviction: “I am the person whose job is to not be liked.”

In both instances, I didn’t have an immediate answer; only a vague and persistent sense, my usual clue that I am on the verge of discovering something: the thought that it doesn’t have to be that way. CEOs don’t have to make decisions alone against others; they don’t have to not be liked; they don’t have to have the immense stress of everyone looking to them for decisions.

I still didn’t know what they could do instead, only that there had to be something more collaborative. After all, as I teach in my Collaboration in the Workplace course, how decisions are made in the context of a disagreement is the litmus test of collaboration.

The power of being heard

When this nagging question floated up in a conversation with my friend, coach, and colleague Ed Niehaus, we latched on to it, eager partners in crime when it comes to subverting expectations about how organizations have to work. It was particularly fun because, in his former life, Ed was a CEO several times, and he could completely relate to Brian. Much bantering and several stories later, the lightbulb went off, and I now have a sense of what Brian could have done, what Alice could have done, and what any CEO or other leader can do in these tough moments.

First of all, before anyone moves towards an actual decision, and unless there is true urgency, I would have wanted Brian to fully take in the concerns of the people who were opposed to his direction. What mattered to them that his plan might not have really taken into consideration? How could he give them an authentic sense of being understood and that their needs mattered regardless of what happened in the end?


Then, as important as anything else, I would want Brian to articulate to them what was important to him, why he wanted to move in the direction that he saw, and how he saw it as speaking to their needs even if they didn’t like what he was doing. And I would want him to persist until he had the experience of being heard and understood, and the sense that they cared about his needs and vision, too. It doesn’t take nearly as much time as people fear – and often enough, in my experience, that alone would be enough for a co-creative solution to emerge.

Inviting everyone to own the problem

And what if not, what if they persist in disagreeing with him, and he persists in seeing his path as the only way to save the company from ruin? What is the alternative to making a unilateral decision against the people who disagree?

I do completely appreciate Brian’s, Alice’s, and many other leaders’ willingness to take the unpopular step – it’s a strength I am still aiming to integrate myself. I know the cost of overriding my own better judgment just because a majority of others have a different opinion.

What the conversation with Ed helped me see is that there is a way beyond the either/or of giving in to the majority or asserting authority and power despite opposition.

What if Brian went to the workers and challenged them to come up with a better plan than his? If they thought there was a way to save the company without taking the measures he proposed, let them work out the specifics and present a worked-out plan. As I was telling Ed about this approach, he lit up, wishing he had thought of it fifteen years ago. In his memory, people were unhappy with his proposed decisions, and at the same time expecting him to make it better for them, somehow. This behavior leaves the power solely with person in authority.

Getting people to come up with an alternative or accept the risk of the CEO’s proposal is an entirely different story. It keeps everyone in the picture, because they recognize the depth of the dilemma and how difficult it is to reach a solution. In that small way, they co-own the problem. And that is the very essence of collaboration, independently of how much of the actual decision-making they participate in.


Image credits: Top: “Buck Stops Here, Baby!” by Jinx!, cropped, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0. Bottom: “listen up: ears really are strange looking if you think about it” by woodleywonderworks, Flickr, CC BY 2.0