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Becoming More Collaborative — When You Like to Be in Control

Mar. 23, 2023 Harvard Business Review

Successful leaders can fall into the trap of thinking they know what’s best for their team or organization. After all, they worked hard to get where they are and have made many tough decisions along the way. However, some leaders rely too heavily on their ability to make decisions on their own — with steep consequences for themselves, their team, and the organization.

Mike, the chief technology officer of a fintech organization and one of Luis’s clients, was facing a dilemma of his own making. He found himself questioning his direct reports — “Why is it so hard for you to follow through? Can’t you get anything right?” — and barking out orders to his peers — “I’m the CTO, right? Stay in your lane; I’ll decide what to do.”

Mike, a former military officer, seasoned professional, and ex-CEO, had joined the organization via an acquisition. Early on, it was evident that there was a clash of personalities and cultures on his team and among his peers. He was used to making all the decisions and demanded loyalty and execution. Once, he made a decision that his team knew was not going to work but had them implement it anyway. His decision cost the company a considerable amount of money. It also prompted the CEO to address Mike’s overconfidence and leadership style. As he discussed the engagement with Luis, he said, “Mike is a liability to this organization and needs to be dealt with.”

When leaders who are used to calling all the shots start working with peers and stakeholders who are as successful, hungry, and confident as they are, they sometimes find themselves at odds. Their previously successful decisive, command-and-control-leadership style is no longer a viable option. And unless they pivot their decision-making style and reposition themselves as open-minded, collaborative leaders, they might be putting their future success on the line. Thus, the overconfident, decisive leader must go through a mindset change.

Gallup research estimates that the cost of poor leadership and lost productivity can tally up to $1.2 trillion dollars per year due to disengaged employees. In organizations, decisiveness, confidence, and the ability to take and carry out bold action are highly rewarded — and can lead to costly mistakes. Of the variables that impact decision-making, overconfidence can be the hardest to improve, as it “is built so deeply into the structure of the mind that you couldn’t change it without changing many other things,” as Nobel prize–winning psychologist, economist, and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, puts it.

If you’re a leader who struggles to let go of control over decision-making, here are several ways to make the mindset and behavioral changes required to become more collaborative.

First, determine why you make decisions in isolation.

If you’re an overconfident, dogmatic leader who tends to make unilateral decisions and expect your team and peers to see them through, you first need to understand why that is. Here are some questions to ask yourself to examine your decision-making style:

Do you think decision-making is a simple gut reaction?

You have many years of experience, so your gut reaction or initial judgment may often be right. But making the correct decision is a complex process that several factors can influence. One big reason people don’t make the right decision is that they don’t have all the information they need due to a lack of input. Many decisions aren’t black and white. They require input, data, expertise, and diverse perspectives from team members and stakeholders.

Do you think other people’s opinions don’t matter?

When leaders make decisions in silos and don’t seek alignment, they signal to other stakeholders, “I don’t value your opinion.” Every individual wants to feel valued, recognized, and relevant. When leaders make decisions in a vacuum, they’re not providing any of those. However, including others in crucial decision-making can increase buy-in and accountability as the decision moves to the execution stage. It also showcases a leader’s confidence in the team, strengthens relationships, and fosters a collaborative culture.

Do you believe you own decision-making rights?

Some leaders feel that their title and position give them the right to make decisions alone. They want to be in control and rely on hierarchy and authority rather than their leadership capabilities. They must recognize their authority and power are not absolute. In fact, position leadership — where a person’s leadership power comes solely through the position they hold in the organization — is the most basic level of leadership, and staying there limits their potential.

Do you believe only you can make the right decision?

Confidence is a valued skill that is closely linked to professional success. However, confidence can become detrimental when a leader overestimates their ability, knowledge, or judgment. Perhaps they’ve fallen into the expertise trap and are more likely to “jump the gun” and take on more risk than necessary due to their perceived decision-making abilities.

Second, determine how you want to reposition yourself as a leader.

Moving from being a lone wolf to a more strategic, collaborative, and inclusive decision-maker requires you to make behavioral changes in order to influence how others perceive you. If you want to be known as an influential leader, you must encourage your team’s engagement, collaboration, and accountability for collective goals and decisions. Here are some ways to get started:

Cultivate humility.

Being humble means acknowledging you don’t know everything, and that’s OK. So, always ask yourself, What is the objective? You must reframe what success means for you. Success is not having the final word or getting your way — it’s accomplishing your business objectives. And that requires having a team that’s engaged and inspired.

Be thorough.

Abraham Maslow, a psychologist and creator of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, said: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

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