Delayed decisions- signs of hesitancy or incompetence – what if you worked at GM?

mary Barra

Every day we make decisions, many unconsciously. So what do we do when we ‘discover” something that isn’t right– when the facts we know don’t match the circumstances, or when we lack the experience or capabilities to respond? How do we decide how to proceed?

I wonder about the influences that determine our next steps. Is timing short or unlimited? Do we feel confident or uncertain about the future? Both play a role in our understanding of the situation and influence our responses.

When I first read the GM story about the recalls due to a faulty ignition switch, I immediately blamed the corporate culture for 13 fatalities, numerous injuries and 2.2 million dangerous vehicles. First, I understood the situation as the result of hierarchical, tightly controlled environments, where individuals rarely are afforded any decision-making latitude. Then I kept thinking and consciously looked for alternative ideas—that’s my own decision process at work. I tend not to just stick with my first response, but take a moment to see what other thoughts or ideas emerge, and check in with others to hear their reactions.

My process resonates with some and frustrates others. Many believe that a quick analysis of a situation, rapid decision-making, and a take-charge attitude are signs of leadership competency. They see asking for input as a sign of incompetence, dependence and basic inadequacy. Collaborating Minds certainly recognizes how asking for help or support isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness or of an inability to make sound decisions quickly.

Recent research findings reported by the Wall Street Journal on organizational decision-making offer even greater evidence of the flaws in the standard “formula for success.” Delaying acting on our first impulse and checking in with ourselves and others, it turns out, saves time and resolves problems before they mutate. Among the supportive comments to the reported findings, James Sauter, former CEO who ran several companies offered this comment and self-analysis of his success.

“Analyze the facts as quickly as possible, consult with associates if you are fortunate enough to have some capable and willing to really help and identify those whose support you need and show them the respect to get it.”

Now imagine being that GM employee who first figured out that maybe GM had a safety issue with those ignition switches. The facts available to you naturally cause some discomfort. You have confidence in your analysis but would feel better if you had some support. How much faith do you have in the company’s usual process to assess the significance of your findings and take appropriate actions? Does feeling helpless or hopeless affect your decisions to reach out to colleagues? How does awareness of the next steps color your decisions? Do you believe that the problem you’ve identified will naturally be resolved and alleviate your concerns? If not, what might you do?

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One Response to Delayed decisions- signs of hesitancy or incompetence – what if you worked at GM?

  1. Gareth Lewis July 15, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    It is always good to examine or own decision making process for potential improvement.

    In case of GM perhaps when the question of safety of the customer arises, action must be immediate (including initial investigation and consultation), and any external action should be broadcast to the customer. Keeping the customer informed can be the difference to losing or keeping their loyalty, and between life or death in this case.

    Bringing that thought back to my own problem solving processes, it reminds me again how important and useful it is to maintain communication – as I would hate to be in the situation of those around me withholding potentially useful insight – simply because they assumed I would not be prepared to consider their input.

    GM has therfore taught us all an important lesson.

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