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The 5 Levels of Decision Making

Sean and Amanda left my office less excited than they entered it.

Just three weeks prior, we discussed the need to improve our online presence. Amanda and Sean asked for 3 weeks to put a project plan together.

They were so excited that just 2 weeks later they brought back their plan. And it was phenomenal. After they excitedly shared it, I made the mistake of saying “Fantastic job… and, do you know what would make it even better? You should do … (I continued to talk for a few minutes)”


And then Amanda broke the silence and said, “Ok, we’ll get to work on that.”

Sean and Amanda left my office less excited than they entered it.

It took me a few months to realize why: I improved their idea by maybe 10% but I undercut their authority by 100%. This was their project. These were there innovative ideas. And I had just squashed (unintentionally) their excitement.

For over a year, I had worked hard to inspire my team and the fruit of that labor was paying off in many ways. Everyone was stepping up and taking responsibility. They were being accountable for getting results.

What was missing was that I hadn’t ensured that everyone on the team was clear about the level of authority they had to make decisions. There was a mismatch between the results people were accountable for and the authority they had to make decisions to fulfill that responsibility.


So, who gets to make decisions in your organization?

If that isn’t crystal clear then you have work to do.

Effective teams need clarity. Clarity of Vision, Clarity of Mission, Clarity of Purpose and Clarity of Role. Having Clarity around how decisions are made is especially important since organizations are required to make hundreds of decisions every week and sometimes every day.  

It’s good practice for effective leadership teams to clarify how decisions will be made at the beginning of the work.  And the greater significance the decision has, the more important this is to do.  

This is especially important for team morale.  Leaders, remember that everyone can understand that decisions need to be made for different reasons. The key to explain this ahead of time.  And do not ask for input if you don’t plan on using it, especially if the decision has already been made.


Here are the 5 Levels of Decision Making:

Level 1: I decide

The Leader decides alone.  There are organizations that function well with a leader making the decisions all the time.  And there may be times when a leader faces an urgent deadline and a decision must be made right away.  In this case, the leader is in the best position to make that decision due to their perspective on the issue, and thus they see the landscape more clearly than anyone else on the team.  Level 1 decision making should be used sparingly if you want to create an empowered culture where everyone is contributing at their highest level.

Level 2: I decide with your input

The leader decides with input from others.  Leaders make the big bucks to make decisions, especially the hard ones.  When the cost of failure is high, the leader must step up and decide. When this happens, the leader can seek input from the key members of the team but ultimately has the right to make the decision independently.

Want the 5 Step Summary? Click to download the 5 levels of Decision making PDF here.

Level 3: We decide together

Consensus.  The team decides as a group.  This happens when the entire team weighs in on the decision.  This is especially useful when a decision will have such a profound impact on the organization that the team needs to debate, discern and decide together. This approach can take time since reaching consensus means that we all agree we can live with the decision. If the team cannot reach consensus, then often times the best resolution is to take a vote.  Side note: be sure to clarify ahead of time how the voting will be done and what will determine the result (i.e. will 51% or greater determine the result?).  

“When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I'll like it or not.  Disagreement, at this stage, stimulates me.  But once a decision has been made, the debate ends.  From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own.”  

~ Colin Powell

Level 4: You decide with my input

Subcommittees are one great example of Level 4 decision making.  Typically, the leader will ask the subcommittee to take on specific work that the leader has input on.  From there, the subcommittee/subgroup then come together to do work on behalf of the whole team.  This is especially useful when the subgroup has expertise on the issue.  It’s also helpful for when the whole team needs to ‘divide and conquer” because there is so much work to be done that it isn’t possible for everyone to be involved in every decision.

Level 5: You decide

The leader turns the decision over to someone else to make in Level 5 decision making.

One final note: it’s important to also remember that different companies have different cultures.  One company may be ok with Leaders making Level 1 decisions often; whereas, another company would prefer to make Level 5 decisions 95% of the time.  

The key is transparency so that everyone is on the same page about who is making what decisions and why the decision is being made that way.  


Effective teams are united and support the decision once it has been made.

As soon as I realized where I had taken a misstep, I went back to Sean and Amanda and let them know that they had complete authority (Level 5 decision) to do the project the way they wanted to do it.

And just like that, their excitement was back!



Core Idea:

Leaders must ensure that everyone is clear about the 5 Levels of Decision Making so that the results people are accountable for and the authority they have to make decisions to fulfill that responsibility are fully understood by everyone.

Key take away:

The key is transparency so that everyone is on the same page about who is making what decisions and why the decision is being made that way.  


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