The Hidden Costs of Top-Down Decisions: A 7-Step System for Better Decisions


This post presents a 7-step system to improve decisions, enhance team morale, spark innovation, and build trust. Embrace inclusive leadership for lasting success.

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“Committing people to a new course of action without their input never works.” – Gavin Adams, from Big Shoes To Fill

This statement is true. It’s especially true for leaders stepping into new roles with new teams.

The Gap Between Decisions and Execution

A great tension exists in every organization.

Leaders make most organizational decisions, yet those further down the organization are primarily responsible for executing these decisions.

This is the tension. Consider how this feels when you’re not included at the decision table. You’re working extremely hard to orchestrate the current strategy and expectations. The “leadership” sets these strategies and expectations. You see the gaps and issues firsthand, though. After all, you’re closest to the implementation. It’s easy to assume the decision table is too far removed from their decisions, making their choices frustrating for people like you. This tension causes all sorts of issues in your heart and the hearts of your teammates.

When this tension festers, it births:

  • Irritation and anger
  • Poor morale
  • Reduced Innovation
  • Decreased Trust
  • Lower Employee Engagement
  • Resistance to Change
  • High Turnover
  • Ineffective Decision-Making
  • Communication Breakdown

It’s easy to see why this tension cannot exist unchecked.

A Quick (and Bad Leadership) Story

I served as the lead pastor of Woodstock City Church for nearly 13 years. At our peak, we had 8,000 attending weekly, supported by 65 staff. With 36,000 people on our active roster, planning for things like Easter and Christmas was complicated. How many services should we offer? What times should we offer services? How many people can we fit with overflow spaces? When do we anticipate children attending?

These types of decisions are data-informed, but historical data alone isn’t predictive enough to simply replicate last year’s plan.

I remember sitting with our senior leadership team debating this very topic. How many services should we offer for Christmas? We studied the data. We ran some predictive guesses. And we made our decision. The following Sunday, we announced our plans to the church. One problem. We didn’t ask our preschool staff members what they believed was possible. Or smart.

In a church, preschool ministry is a bit like the Waffle House – it’s always open. I wanted preschool available for kids (and their parents) at each of our 10 services. Yes, you read that correctly. From the top of the organization, this seems wise. Let’s make church easy to attend regardless of when you attend. However, opening our preschool environment 10 times over two days is a logistical nightmare. The sheer number of volunteers required makes this impossible. Not to mention, toddlers aren’t easy to keep at 8:00 p.m.

It was my mistake. I didn’t bring the preschool director into this decision, even though the decision directly affected her, her team, and the kids and parents she leads.

I could give you more examples, but you get the point. It’s all too easy for leaders to make decisions that will be executed by those not involved in the decision.

Listening To The Boots On The Ground

The solution is pretty simple: We’ve got to invite those who will be affected by our decisions to participate in the decision.

While the solution is easy, the reality is not. Inviting everyone affected by every decision could create a workweek of nothing but meetings. With 28 people around the table. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a table big enough.

So, we need to listen, but we can’t invite everyone to contribute. Hence the tension.

How can you solve this? Let me give you a 7-step system:

1. Plan EARLY.

If you’re constantly experiencing the tyranny of the urgent, you’ll never be far enough ahead to engage the voices that should be heard. From my church example, planning Christmas service times in late November doesn’t give me enough time to listen throughout the organization. Most decision processes can begin earlier. So start earlier.

2. Listen Throughout the Organization.

Not every decision must engage the entire staff team, but many should. If you create some decision-making margin, you’ll have time to decide what decisions need more input.

To decide who should contribute to a decision, ask yourself this simple question: Who will implement this decision?

When you ask this question, broaden your answer enough to involve everyone who should be involved.

In my church example, this means not just the preschool department but the service planning department, the guest services team, and several more people.

3. Bring Information to the Table

You cannot invite everyone to the decision, but you can bring their feedback to the table. When you ask for wisdom and seek feedback, you can bring better data to the decision table.

With this information, don’t make a final decision just yet, though. First, make a preliminary decision, then…

4. Revisit With Your Stakeholders.

Take your preliminary decision back to those expected to implement it and get their feedback again. With a preliminary decision in hand, ask everyone if they see any issues or problems with this decision.

This is important: Just because they see an issue doesn’t mean the decision must be altered. At times, it should, but there are other instances where one team’s or one leader’s myopic view isn’t holistic enough to understand all of the ramifications around the decision. That’s okay. The point is they were heard and have an opportunity to be heard again.

5. Make a Final Decision.

After your revisit conversations, take the discussion back to the decision table and finalize the decision. Leave this meeting with a communication plan for the entire organization.

6. Inform Stakeholders FIRST

Before you announce a decision to the entire organization, take time to reengage anyone you asked to provide input into the decision first. Informing them of the final decision first does two things:

    1. It validates their opinion and reinforces that they were heard and
    2. It allows you to engage their support if the final decision isn’t what they suggested or desired.

This is so crucial to get right. If you want your team to provide input moving forward, they must feel heard today. When a staff member offers feedback that is not taken exactly, the temptation is for them to feel unheard. You can overcome this by explaining the entire thought process and asking them to commit, even if they aren’t sure they agree.

7. Take the Decision Public.

Finally, now you can take the decision to the masses. Of course, inform people in groups, beginning with those closest to the decision table. In my church example, this would mean telling department directors first, then staff (maybe at a staff meeting), our volunteer teams, and finally, our church.

A Secondary Benefit to This Approach

One more thing you’ll love about this approach. When you take your time to engage multiple people throughout the organization about a decision under consideration, you begin moving people mentally and emotionally from how things are to how things may become.

Think about it. When you make a leadership decision, you process and consider for weeks. Maybe months. Then, you announce the decision to your team and expect them to be onboard in a minute. It took you three weeks to decide, and you want them excited and in agreement in three minutes. When you follow a decision process, as I outlined above, you can float potential changes or ideas throughout the organization without them feeling like an actual change or directive.

I did this all the time at Woodstock City Church. I’d see someone in the hall and say, “I noticed our service is pretty crowded at 11 a.m. Do you think people would attend a 1:00 p.m. service if we added that one day?” Think about what I just did. The person doesn’t feel like we’re making this change tomorrow, but they will certainly give me some unfiltered feedback and probably pass my “just thinking” idea along to their team.

Sure, you can’t do this with every decision (e.g., “I’m thinking of laying off 15 people. How do you think that will affect our staff?”). But you can float out plenty of disruptive ideas and begin to engage people in the thought of change before announcing the reality of a change.

You Need People Onboard

Remember, leadership is about influence and results; it all happens with, in, and through people. If you skip the people side of leadership, you’ll end up without anyone following you.