If Your Workers Can’t Make Decisions, Teach Them How

Some days I feel really old. I know I am not that old, but now that I am, well, the age that I am, I often feel challenged by the younger generations. I now work with business owners my kids’ ages (late twenties and early thirties), and their employees are even younger—my step-kids’ ages (late teens and early twenties).

It’s not that I don’t remember being that young and full of spunk, knowing everything, ready to take on the world without much of a clue about how to do so (hold on while I adjust this standing desk to relieve my aching back). It’s just that entry-level workers today, though they don’t lack for spunk, seem even less-well equipped than previous generations for making even the simplest decisions.

The reason, I suspect, is that they haven’t had much practice making decisions. As a result, not only do they not know how to make decisions, they don’t even know they’re supposed to. Many of the biggest decisions have been made for them all their lives.

My stepdaughter is now a freshman in college and during her application process I discovered that many parents are now 110% involved in the children’s first big adult decision. (I feel sorry for my kids. I was not this involved, though I prefer to think of it as teaching them independence.) I watched her friends’ parents choose their children’s college, their major, their dorm, and even their extracurriculars. When my stepdaughter asked one of her friends what she had done for an optional video presentation for one of the applications, the friend responded, “I’m not sure. My father did most of it.” What the…! (Of course, my husband and I walked the perfect line between support and independence! We tried to, anyway.)

Is it any wonder that new workers find it difficult to make decisions? Have they ever seen a Pros-and-Cons list, let alone created one themselves? How can we expect them to make decisions if they’ve never been allowed to, if they’ve never been taught to? And what can we do about it?

It’s simple really. The first step as team leads, managers, or business owners is to give our teams permission to make decisions and teach them how to make these decisions in an informed, logical, strategic, and integrity-based way. And this seems like a contradiction—you teach them how to make good decisions by giving them more direction, not less. I advise clients to “dial up your directions.” WAY up. Explain what appropriate attire for a conference is. Why they must document their conversations with clients. How to properly answer the telephone. That text-speak is not appropriate for business communication. All the things you think they should just know, but don’t.

You can do this in the form of checklists and desk manuals and other job aids. In this way they know exactly what their duties are as well as the expectations for their performance. Once they get these down, they’ll have the foundation and the tools to make their own decisions. By providing this kind of basic training early on, companies have the opportunity to grow and nurture their employees to be strong assets and independent thinkers.

How do we do this without losing our cool? Here are some strategies for empowering our employees to become independent decision makers.

Give Employees Solo Projects

Give your employees a small project of their own that they are solely responsible for. For example, ask them to put together a PowerPoint presentation on some aspect of the business you want them to learn, maybe a company policy such as the dress code, the monthly production expectations, quarterly sales revenue.

Provide them the parameters to work with (time limit, branding requirements, and a deadline), but then let them decide everything else—background colors, fonts and font size, special effects, the actual information. Provide only minimal guidance if they ask for it. Let them struggle a bit. Then have them present the result at a staff meeting. If public speaking isn’t their thing, all the better. Everyone in a company should learn how to express their ideas before a group.

After the presentation, provide constructive and gentle feedback one on one—not in front of the group. This is an opportunity for learning, not discipline. Help them improve for next time and watch their confidence soar. Make sure there is a next time.

Teaching teamwork is important, but if an employee can’t work on their own, how are they going to contribute to a team? Projects like these help employees work on their skills and give them the time and space to create their own wins and face their own failures (if that’s the case). This helps them understand, learn, and refine their personal decision-making skills at every step. It also lets you know how they work, and what level of involvement they need from you to perform a task.

Then Cut Them Some Slack

New employees aren’t used to making independent decisions and some of their decisions will be outrageously awful. Just remember, we’ve all made cringeworthy decisions. Maybe the purple background with a tiny orange font wasn’t the best choice. Maybe their question-and-answer session was scattered and unprofessional because they started talking about the Marvel metaverse. The good news is, they did this in a safe environment among co-workers, no damage was done to the business, and they can learn from this feedback.

Focus on the positive. Even if the presentation was less than stellar, they made actual, independent decisions every step of the way, and this will lead to more independent decisions down the line. Ask them what they learned by doing this project, and what they would do differently. You’ll be surprised by how insightful they can be about their own work. Part of what you’re teaching them is how to listen to that better angel in their head.

Then bring this attitude into the real world. Let’s say, to diffuse a tense situation, one of these young, excited workers promises a client something the company simply can’t deliver. Instead of going off on them and fixing the problem yourself, ask the employee what they could have done differently and then give them the opportunity to do just that—to call the client and fix the mistake without penalty.

Don’t expect perfection immediately—or at all. Learning effective decision-making is a journey, not a destination.

Watch Out for Decision Fatigue

After making decisions all day long, I admit there are nights I get home and the simple question “What do you want for dinner” puts me in a meltdown.

We’ve all had that moment, even the most experienced among us. Realize that your younger employees, who are not accustomed to making so many big decisions each day, may have more of them, at least at the beginning. They will get mentally exhausted. What happens when they reach that level of exhaustion? They will react instinctively. They won’t think things through. They will make bad decisions, one after another. They will create a huge mess.

First, teach them how to pause and regroup. We experienced business owners have learned how to take a minute and take a breath. I walk up and down the stairs of my office building or go out in the parking lot to feel the sun on my face. What works for you? Pass on your hard-won wisdom to your employees.

THEN help them with the mess. With your years of experience, you can often see a simple solution to the problem. Unless it’s a matter of life and death, teach them how to find the solution, don’t give them the solution. Whenever possible, let them unravel the mess themselves even if it feels painfully slow to you. Guide them to the correct path and give them a gentle push if you have to, but don’t hold their hands the whole way.

Feed Employees’ Confidence

Every time a younger employee makes a bad decision, their ego and self-worth takes a hit. That Negative Nelly lives in all our heads. If the employees are working hard to impress you, their boss, a minor snafu may cause Nelly to roar.

They are newbies and need our guidance. They haven’t had the time to build their business knowledge and self-worth. We all know that learning any new skill can be a challenge. When they make a good decision, encourage and praise them, without going overboard. Give them the time to learn to trust and develop their decisions, their skill sets, their business acumen.

Some days will be frustrating, and others will be rewarding—for both you and your younger employees. What a fabulous opportunity to be the leader they rave about when I ask them during a one-on-one: “Who’s your favorite boss and why?” and they say “Good old So-and-So, because they taught me how to make a good decision and stick with it.” I had several very special leaders throughout my career who taught me exactly that, and I’ll bet you have too. Let’s pay it forward.