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Build Your Bench: Empower Your Team to Make Great Decisions

An ace pitcher alone doesn’t guarantee a winning baseball game, just as a growing business needs a strong team and a deep bench of employees who are trusted to make good decisions.

However, entrepreneurs and less experienced managers often have trouble letting go, thinking they should make all the decisions. The result? Employees aren’t empowered to move forward, slowing down the company’s response. Time gets wasted, capable employees feel frustrated and undervalued, and customer satisfaction and employee morale suffers.

So how do you build decision-making skills in your team?

Trust + freedom = empowerment

Remember the thrill of pride and freedom you felt the first time you were trusted to drive the family car by yourself? Well that’s how your employees will feel when you loosen the reins and begin trusting them to make decisions without you.

The only way employees are going to get better at making decisions is to experience and learn, especially if the company is in serious growth mode. There’s no substitute for trying things on for size. Things may not work out the first time, or even the second, so that’s where your feedback and coaching comes into play.

We’re not talking about a sink-or-swim environment here. We’re talking about starting an employee off with small decisions and gradually building their company knowledge and skills so that eventually they can make bigger decisions without you.

For example, a small, first decision for your employee might be to find a freelance writer to write the CEO’s next speech. You might give these instructions: “Our budget is $2,000 and the speech should be about our merger with ABC company. Here’s a list of freelancers we’ve used in the past. You’ll have to coordinate with the CEO’s assistant to schedule a time for the writer and the CEO to meet to compose the speech. I’d also like you to be in charge of managing the approval process. Please find someone who can deliver the speech by May 12th.”

Asking your employees questions is another good method to building their decision-making capacity. If you’ve got a decision to be made, bring one or more employees into the process.

Questions to try are: “What do you think,” “Do you see any issues with this,” “Do you have any ideas of the best way to handle this?”

For this method to be effective, you have to go with your employee’s ideas sometimes. Or, combine your ideas with theirs. If you always end up going with your idea, employees will likely get frustrated and be less apt to share their feedback in the future.

Gradually, as employees gain experience, you can increase their responsibilities and decrease your level of oversight. This allows you to free up your time for higher-level work, while your employees develop a better understanding of their company’s needs and the pressures their manager faces in a way that can’t be explained by watching.

Create decision-making guidelines

It’s important for you to set clear guidelines so that employees understand when they can (and can’t) make decisions without your input. The process is similar to levels of expenditures that company leaders can approve, such as managers can approve employee expenses up to $1,000, directors up to $10,000, vice presidents up to $100,000, etc.

Think about the decisions your employees will likely face in their roles. Now, can you group these together based on the level of oversight needed? Be as specific as possible. You’ll need to assign each decision a level and who needs to be involved at each level.

For example, you might explain it to your employees like this:

  • Level 1 decisions
    • Definition: Purchasing products or services, issuing refunds, or providing complimentary products and services that cost up to $500.
    • Who needs to be involved: Do it yourself. I’m here if you need me.
  • Level 2 decisions
    • Definition: Purchasing products or services, issuing refunds, or providing complimentary products and services that cost up to $1,000.
    • Who needs to be involved: Come to me with ideas, and we’ll discuss the pros and cons before a decision is made so that I’m in the loop.
  • Level 3 decisions
    • Definition: Purchasing products or services, issuing refunds, or providing complimentary products and services that exceed $1,000.
    • Who needs to be involved: A leadership-level decision-maker needs to be actively involved. Explain why so the employee understands the reasons they can’t make this level of decision on their own.

For example, a hotel desk clerk could be empowered to upgrade a client to a suite if they’re being disturbed by construction noise. (Level 1 decision)

A highly experienced employee in charge of finding a new software vendor would need to keep you in the loop so that you can make sure the right questions are being asked and the concerns of end users are being addressed. (Level 2 decision)

However, a new or inexperienced employee with the same task of finding a new vendor might need your involvement throughout the process. It’s not that the employee isn’t smart or capable. He just may not have enough time with the company to fully understand how a change in your department will affect others. Or, the cost might exceed your approval limit. (Level 3 decision)

Be sure to explain the  ”why” behind your need for involvement in more advanced decisions. You’ll build your employee’s understanding of the company as well as build their confidence and your trust.

If you’re nervous about giving up control, remind yourself that most of the day-to-day operational decisions you’re turning over aren’t likely to sink the company. If it’s the deal of a lifetime for your company, of course you’ll be involved. Otherwise, teach, train and trust your employees to do the right thing.

It won’t happen overnight, but if you begin today to train your employees in good decision-making, you’ll gradually build an engaged team that can drive company innovation and growth.

Want more tips on improving business efficiency and employee empowerment? Download How to Develop a Top-notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business.