Two Birds with One Cultural Stone: Motivating Employees with Broader—and Better—Decision Making

Aug 30, 2019

By Brook Manville and Thomas Davenport

Ever notice how telling someone to do something works less well than asking him or her to help decide what or how to do it? And did you also notice that when you just tell the person what to do she/he usually isn't all that excited about it? Most of us get some version of those lessons every week in our personal lives—but our management practices still reflect the same broken thinking nonetheless. The latest research continues to affirm what we already know: employees who have a stake in decision making are usually more motivated about doing the intended work, and that more motivated employees also generally produce better performance results.

But today, smart companies around the world are making the connection between both of these fundamental ideas: building more motivation by engaging employees in critical decisions, and similarly reaping the benefits of engaged employees with better performance. These winning companies are building organizational cultures that excite and engage the people who do the real work, and part of the strategy to do that often includes giving those same people a role in the decisions that guide the path—both short and longer term—of their enterprises.

We’ve profiled some interesting cases in our new book Judgment Calls: Twelve Stories of Great Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). Consider, for example, NASA. After the tragedies of the Challenger and Columbia missions, the agency revamped its processes and culture of decision-making to build a more distributed approach to problem solving involving engineers, operations staff, and even astronauts themselves, getting widely acknowledged better results and safety guarantees. The data storage company EMC, struggling like so many large enterprises in the recession of 2009, used social media and firmwide employee conversations and forums to identify millions of dollars in savings. The employee-proposed cuts in operating costs allowed it to avoid layoffs, save some 2,000 jobs, and earn the CEO a standing ovation in front of the assembled company. Media General, a largely print media company, who was also struggling in the first years of this Great Recession, overhauled its strategy and organization to better align digital and newspaper sales. The breakthrough in thinking came through an unprecedented more democratic decision-making approach launched by the CEO—generating fresh enthusiasm among many formerly contentious units.

But engaging employees in tough decisions is not confined only to desperate economic times. In the late 1980s, McKinsey & Company, a historically high-motivation and deep-culture consulting firm, called on its traditional participatory partnership values to steer itself through what its leaders today look back upon as a bet-the-ranch decision. Facing increasing client demands for more and different kinds of skills, McKinsey called upon a broad team of partners to explore, propose, and then institutionalize among their peers a brand new strategy for recruiting talent: abandoning its then sacred approach to hiring only top-flight MBAs. The firm led the strategy consulting industry in a brand new direction: hiring the best and brightest engineers, doctors, and physicists to become part of its elite consulting teams. Partners today look back upon the move as a major contributor to its continued double-digit growth for the next many years.

Despite these and many other stories, many leaders in business today remain reluctant to give up power, or worry about the possible “chaos” or “confusion” when too many different people get involved in making decisions. And true enough, history shows that rule by a mob is no recipe for success. Nor does any enterprise thrive by making every decision open to democratic debate. But with the right focus, the right investment in developing process to bring the best thinking to the table, and building the right cultural values to surface dissent—or innovation—when needed, any organization can improve its performance.

The imperative for more participatory and distributed problem solving for important decisions has been growing steadily. Global and hypercompetitive operating environments are more complex, requiring deeper and more nuanced decision making. At the same time, new tools and technology are providing opportunities to tap into wider networks of wisdom, and utilize, as has been named, “the wisdom of crowds.” Data and analytics provide increasing guidelines to decisions as well. If there was ever an era of the single “great man” as all-knowing leader, embodying “heroic individual decision-making”, that era is now gone. The great leaders of tomorrow will understand—and find ways to harness—the “power of many” in their decision making. And they will build cultures of transparency, open debate, technology-enabled analysis, and the freedom to contribute in support of that. Lo and behold, they’ll also be pleasantly surprised how much employee motivation and enthusiasm of will come along with the ride.