07 Nov 2015

‘He/she who hesitates is lost’…..really?

The fight and flight responses result in action, in movement, a decisive act following a quick decision. On the other hand, hesitation is the time taken waiting to make a decision, or a conscious decision not to make a decision at all. Hesitation results in no movement and no action. In nature, hesitation as described by Cannon can get you killed. In the business world, is the leader who hesitates lost or rewarded?

This is an important question for all leaders – given one key aspect of their role is to be able to make decisions.

Do the circumstances a leader faces justify waiting for a decision? Or is the lack of decision related to a lack of leadership skill?

Hesitant leaders can create time and work inefficiencies for themselves as well as their team. They also have the ability to frustrate team members focussed on results. I am sure you have seen leaders that hesitate in their responses. Traits of hesitant leaders include:

  • seeking consensus for every decision. Even when a clear decision is obvious, the leader wants to make sure that everyone ‘is on board’ before proceeding.
  • allowing poor performance to continue. Small performance conversations can become large performance management disasters if leaders hesitate for too long. Not holding team members to account for poor performance costs businesses vast amount of money, and hesitant leaders that wait weeks / months before addressing issues make a small problem much worse.
  • taking on others work. Why do hesitant leaders have so much trouble making decisions on their own work, yet are so able to make decisions on the most insignificant detail of yours?
  • not making the hard call. If there is a grey area to a decision, or the decision involves ethics or the chance of having negative consequences, the hesitant leader will wait or actively stall in the process.
  • deferring simple decisions to their boss. It is within their capacity and authority to make the decision, yet hesitant leaders will defer simple decisions northwards to avoid making the wrong decision.

None of these behaviours seem like solid, dependable leadership traits – yet most of you will have seen the behaviours listed above on countless occasions in your working life.

There are some obvious examples when waiting to make a decision is better than a quick decision. Needing more information, insufficient authority, or having to consider the long term consequences are all reasons for waiting to make a decision. A judge will take more time to make a decision if there is no precedent or if the decision will impact other cases in the future.

There is a big difference between waiting for more valid information, and stalling to avoid making a decision.

So I raise the question – when is hesitating on a decision, or waiting to make a decision, actually better than not making the call?