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The Decision Tree

In my experience as an executive coach, I have seen how some managers—particularly those who are new in their leadership roles—have struggled with the concept of delegation. Managers who wisely and effectively delegate are able to accomplish much more than those who lasso and corral the tasks that their employees should be doing themselves.

Reasons abound for why managers don’t delegate, even when they are keenly aware of the benefits that delegation can offer the manager, the employees, and the organization. These reasons include lack of confidence in the employees to do the job right and on time, lack of self-confidence, fear of risk taking, reluctance to give up control and surrender territory, worry over creating possible rivals, and concerns about being viewed as lazy or incompetent.

Subordinates also obviously play a role in the dance with delegation and authority. Sometimes employees avoid new responsibility because of a fear of failure or worry over how additional delegated responsibilities might affect completion of their other duties.

In the excellent book Fierce Conversations, author Susan Scott provides a wonderfully simple and useful tool called the Decision Tree to help both managers and employees in resolving and communicating issues of delegation and authority. She uses an analogy of the organization as being a growing tree and explains four categories of decisions that represent the degree of potential harm or good to the organization as actions are taken at each level. The four categories of the Decision Tree are

LEAF decisions: Make the decision. Act on it. Do not report the action you took.

BRANCH decisions: Make the decision. Act on it. Report the action you took on a periodic basis (e.g., daily, weekly, or monthly).

TRUNK decisions: Make the decision. Report your decision before you take action.

ROOT decisions: Make the decision jointly, with input from various stakeholders.

Using the Decision Tree tool can help to identify clearly which category a decision falls into, so that an employee knows where he or she has the authority to make decisions and take action. This tool can also provide employees with a straightforward path of professional development. Progress occurs when decisions are moved from one level to the next. For example, if an employee demonstrates a record of making good decisions in the trunk category, the manager might then decide that the employee is ready to move to the branch category for a particular duty or set of responsibilities.

As a manager, you might consider this analogy to be too elementary to present to some of your employees. Nonetheless, the Decision Tree can be a simple and effective tool to help you strategize in identifying and communicating tasks and authority related to delegation.

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Joe Boutte

I like the tree analogy and will order the book. Thanks for sharing this. I’m very interested in decision making in organizations in the context of governance, with a focus on IT governance and decision making.

Michele Costanza

Hi Scott: Are micro-managers those who don’t know how or don’t want to delegate? Would the use of the Decision Tree be a good strategy for micro-managers to loosen the grip on tasks subordinates should successfully complete on their own without direct supervision?

K. Scott Derrick

Joe: Thank you for your comments. I hope you like the book. It is a great resource.

Michele: I think some micro-managers are fully aware of their actions in not delegating various tasks while other micro-managers just haven’t yet mastered the art of delegation. Yeah, the Decision Tree can be a useful tool for micro-managers in assessing their own tendency to hoard employee tasks. Executive coaches and leadership coaches can also introduce this great tool to their clients when issues of delegation arise in a coaching engagement.

Ed: Thanks for your comments. Yes, the Decision Tree tool can be used to assess decision making from both of the perspectives that you mention. The great benefit of the tool is that you can use it to assess decision making from the standpoint of the employee, the manager, and/or the organization.