What If the Boss Makes No Decisions?

In: BlogDate: Jan 09, 2018By: Henry Stewart

As a manager, do you see your role as the expert, with responsibility for making key decisions? Do you find your people coming to you for those decisions, even when they know what to do?

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In one big British retailer they tried an experiment, asking the store managers in two locations to make no decisions for three months. Termed Project Maverick, in honour of Ricardo Semler, the managers of the stores were asked to instead help and coach their people to come to their own decisions.

The result: On seven crucial KPIs, the results went up – in absolute terms and in relation to other stores.

From tell to do the right thing

“We wanted to transform an environment which was quite directive into one where people do the right thing,” explains Donna Reeves, who was then Director of Group Internal Comms and worked with the team on the project. “We recruit really smart people, full of ideas and enthusiasm. Then we put them in a uniform and start telling them what to do.”

The two store managers were given coaching training and support throughout the project and they in turn coached their teams. There were very few rules: follow any centrally-dictated process, keep everyone safe and you can’t make any decisions – you’re going to coach your teams to make decisions themselves.

“We asked them to start by getting up in front of team and explain that things were going to be different, which meant being vulnerable, putting themselves out there in front of their teams,” continues Donna.

The managers were really up for it

“These were people who had been store managers for around 25 years each. They knew how to run their stores and get things done, often in quite a traditional way. But they were really up for it.

“When people come and say ‘boss, that problem we’ve got, we could do X or we could do Y. 90% of the time they know the right answer: We go to our boss for answers because we want reassurance and often because it means they make the decision, so it’s not my responsibility.

“In the 10% where people don’t know the answer, there’s an opportunity to coach them. Either way, if they’re right, that’s great, and if they get it wrong, that’s an opportunity for another great coaching conversation, to get great learning.”

The managers really enjoyed the experience; they were more relaxed and felt that the world was no longer solely on their shoulders. Even the families of the store managers noticed the difference. One asked what was going on, as he was so much more relaxed when he came home. He didn’t have this weight on his shoulders any more. And, when he had a week off, he didn’t contact the store.

“You’ve got a lot more trust behind you”

One member of staff said, “the shackles have been released from everybody. You’ve got a lot more trust behind you. You can make the decision with the customer. The customers know that we can make our own decisions. A lot more staff have the autonomy to do what they believe is right.”

In both stores the managers continued when the three-month pilot came to an end. “Why on earth would you want to go back? It’s a great place to be. It puts cash in the till and earns people a bonus. And they’re feeling great coming to work in the morning.”

As a manager could you make no decisions?

This example reminds me of the story of David Marquet. As Captain of the submarine Sante Fe, he resolved to make no decisions (except for the key one to fire torpedoes at an enemy) and turned it into the best performing submarine in US Navy history.

Are you a manager? Do you see your role as to be the expert and make the key decisions – or to make as few decisions as possible and coach and support your people to take action?

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Henry Stewart, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd. Following a fairly disastrous job early on in his career, Henry was determined to discover what enabled a productive and happy workplace. In 1987 Henry set up what was originally called Happy Computers. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, he built a company with a reputation for some of the best customer service in the country and one of the UK’s best places to work, winning multiple awards for its culture and philosophy. His book, the Happy Manifesto, was published by in 2013.

Outside of work he is a father of three, Chair of Governors at his local comprehensive in Hackney and a keen cyclist.

You can find Henry on LinkedIn and follow @happyhenry on Twitter.

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