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Managers who can’t seem to pick a course of action — or who constantly change their minds – can be maddening.
You’re left spinning your wheels, or abruptly switching directions, and your team’s credibility across the organization is likely to suffer. So how can you help a wishy-washy boss make decisions? If your manager isn’t willing to steer, is it OK for you to take the driver’s seat?
What the Experts Say
Reporting to an indecisive boss is an unquestionably “challenging and frustrating situation,” says Sydney Finkelstein, the Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and author of the book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent. “It drives you crazy because without direction, you’re not sure what to do.” In addition to the daily annoyance, you might also have concerns about your professional prospects, says Nancy Rothbard, the David Pottruck Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “From a career aspiration standpoint, you worry that your reputation will suffer,” she says. “If your boss isn’t being taken seriously in the organization, are you, by extension, seen as ineffective?” Here are some strategies for coping if your boss is chronically indecisive.
Diagnose the situation
According to Finkelstein, the first step is to “figure out what is behind the behavior.”
Pay attention to what’s going on in your boss’s work world because it will “give you some clues” as to why they’re acting the way they are. Try to have empathy.
“It could be that his own boss smacked him down the last time he went out on a limb.” It could be that he’s wary of your organization’s “blaming culture.”
Or perhaps your manager’s inability to move forward is due to his “inexperience or naturally risk-averse” disposition. As you diagnose the problem, it’s critical to do a “gut check” to ensure that you’re not “overestimating your boss’s indecisiveness or misinterpreting it,” he says. Ask yourself if “there might be a method to your manager’s madness. For example, “Is it possible your boss isn’t telling you how to do every little thing because he is waiting to see if you step up?” Rothbard agrees.
“As a subordinate, you don’t necessarily have all the information,” she says. “There could be all kinds of reasons why your boss is having trouble making a decision.” And indecision is sometimes defensible. “If an issue is hard and complicated, rushing to judgment is not a good thing. Sometimes your boss needs to be more thoughtful.”
If you determine that the root of the problem is your boss’s insecurity, it’s your job to “lend [your manager] confidence” by being an “extremely competent and trustworthy” direct report, says Finkelstein. Think of it as “an opportunity for you to help your boss see a way forward.” If the indecisiveness stems from the fact that the decision is complicated and the answers unclear, Rothbard recommends acting as “a sounding board — someone who’s willing to discuss and weigh the pros and cons of various actions.” Ask good questions; provide relevant, useful data; and offer your perspective.
When you have a strong opinion about how the decision should go, but your boss is still stuck in “analysis paralysis” — take a different approach. “Giving your boss more data to pore over will not necessarily help him move forward,” Rothbard explains. In these cases, “you need to help your boss sort through the information” and then offer “a clear rationale for your recommendation.” It’s also helpful to “enable your boss to delegate to you without formality,” says Finkelstein.
You could say something like, “I have been thinking a lot about this and there are a few ways we could address the issue. Can I give one or two of them a shot and then report back to you with my progress?”
Taking charge of the situation removes the decision-making burden from your boss. “It’s much easier for your manager to choose between Door Number One or Door Number Two than it is to take action versus do nothing.” The goal, he says, is to “ease [your manager] into empowering you.”
Talk to your boss
Depending on how receptive your manager is to feedback, it might be worth having an honest and respectful conversation about how her wishy-washiness impacts you and the rest of the team. Don’t be aggressive or confrontational, says Rothbard. “Signal that you know your boss’s intentions are good.
Your tone should say, ‘We’re in this together.’” She suggests broaching the subject with a line like, “I’m concerned that because we said one thing in the past and now we seem to be going back on it, it’s affecting morale.” The conversation should be constructive and one-on-one, Finkelstein adds. It’s always wise to “offer people a face-saving way to deal with problems.” That said, if your relationship with your boss is shaky and/or they’re not particularly open, trying to discuss her indecisiveness “could be seen as an aggressive” move.
Another way to speed up the decision-making process is “to form a coalition,” comprised of people “with whom you have a reasonably good relationship” and “who have influence over your boss,” says Finkelstein.
“Don’t spill your guts,” and, of course, don’t complain. Simply “ask for their advice” on what to do. He suggests saying something like, “I’m trying to figure out the best way to accomplish the goals of our team. Do you have any ideas?” If several people agree on a course of action, that’s further impetus for your boss to follow the recommendation.
Having an indecisive boss is not only hard on your day-to-day productivity, it’s also bad for your “internal reputation and career development,” says Finkelstein.
Without a record of achievement, “What have you got to show on your resume?” If you come to the conclusion that your manager’s woolliness is harming your professional potential, Rothbard advises you “distance yourself and protect yourself” from your boss’s behavior by “developing your relationships and network internally.” She also suggests cultivating “mentors in other parts of the organization. You need people who have your back.” If the problem persists, you might also want to consider moving on.
Principles to Remember
- Engender trust and confidence by being an extremely competent, high-performing employee who’s willing to serve as a sounding board.
- Take the lead by helping your boss sort through information and then offering a clear recommendation.
- Seek out colleagues who have influence over your boss and ask for their advice on how to handle the situation.
- Take your boss’s behavior personally. Try to figure out what is behind the indecisiveness.
- Be aggressive or confrontational if you decide to talk to your boss about their behavior.
- Stay too long under a boss who can’t make a decision. It’s bad for your internal reputation and long-term career development.
Case Study #1: Seek advice from others and uncover the root of your boss’s indecisiveness
Early in Alexi Robichaux’s career, he worked under a boss—“Frank”—who suffered from “episodic” indecisiveness.
“At times, he could be very decisive, but there were many other times when he just couldn’t make up his mind and it was extremely frustrating,” Alexi recalls. “I was junior in my career, and I blamed myself. I thought I must be doing something wrong and must not be equipping him for success.”
But Alexi was determined to improve the situation. “I realized I could either choose to be a victim or try to help him move forward.”
Alexi’s first coping strategy was to seek advice from other senior leaders in the organization who had a longer history with Frank. “I asked them, ‘What am I missing?’” One colleague told him that Frank was “passionate” about the company and product design but lacked managerial experience. “Frank was very skilled but he was used to being the artist not the boss.”
That perspective helped Alexi to understand the root of the indecisiveness and to see that he and Frank were actually quite similar. “We are both intuitive thinkers, rather than systematic or rational ones,” he says. “I’m not even sure myself how I make decisions, and so I felt more empathy for Frank. We both wanted what was best for the organization.”
Not long after that, Frank, Alexi, and the rest of the team were embroiled in a strategic challenge. The team had created a new product, but “we were limited by technology at the time — the cloud infrastructure wasn’t very developed — and our solution wasn’t elegant.”
Frank hemmed and hawed about whether the product was ready to go to market. “It was never a ‘no.’ It was ‘Let me think about it some more. I’ll get back to you.’”
The team grew more and more aggravated. But, because Alexi appreciated his boss’s strong design aesthetic and perfectionist tendencies, he decided to show Frank that the product was the best it could be under the circumstances.
After each meeting with the engineering team, Alexi sent Frank detailed updates. He described what was discussed as the pros and cons of various scenarios. “I needed to show him that we had the best technical minds in the company working on this and that we weren’t being lazy; we were just limited by technology.”
Ultimately Frank agreed with the assessment and the product went to market.
Today Alexi is cofounder and CEO of BetterUp, the San Francisco-based company that connects employees with certified, executive-level coaching.
Case Study #2: Build trust and consider talking to your boss about their behavior
Several years ago, Kyle Libra was the first employee at a fast-growing software startup. His boss, “Charlie,” was indecisive about pretty much everything.
“Charlie once asked me to extend a job offer to a candidate, which I did. And then he came back a few days later and told me that we should try to go back and offer her less money,” recalls Kyle. “He also wanted to be involved in every little design decision, but he often changed his mind. One day he’d want us to make the buttons [on our product] slightly rounded; two weeks later, they needed to be perfectly square.”
Difficult as this was, Kyle was sensitive to Charlie’s situation. “He was a first-time CEO, and I think he was overwhelmed by all the things he had to do,” he says. “I tried to put myself in his shoes and think about things from his perspective.”
Kyle knew he needed to gain Charlie’s trust, while also demonstrating that the constant mind-changing was having a negative impact on the team. First, he provided Charlie with analytical customer feedback that indicated the company’s product launches were well received. This was meant to reassure Charlie that the team knew what it was doing.
Next, he talked to Charlie about his behavior. “It wasn’t personal, but I tried to be as direct as possible,” he says. Once again, he used data to prove his point. “I showed him a graph of the organization’s engineering output, and showed how his lack of decision-making was hurting their efficiency. They can’t do their jobs if he’s holding them up.”
Kyle succeeded in getting Charlie to delegate more. “Over time Charlie saw that things were running smoothly and trusted us to make good decisions,” he says.
Kyle left the company after two years and is now an internet product manager at Work Market, the New York City-based company that connects businesses with freelancers.