Research

Top Managers Make Decisions Easily, but Struggle to Act on Them


Tom Petty performing in 1989

Photograph by Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Tom Petty performing in 1989

Research Briefs, a regular series, looks at intriguing research coming out of academia. This week: the Tom Petty school of management.

Paper: I Won’t Back Down: Complexity and Courage in U.S. Federal Executive Decision-Making

Authors: Steven Kelman of Harvard University and Ronald Sanders, Gayatri Pandit, and Sarah Taylor of Booz Allen Hamilton.

Published: August 2014

It’s not often you find the title of a research paper taken from a hit rock song. But Tom Petty’s 1989 classic I Won’t Back Down just might serve as a new anthem for managers.

The study’s authors, who presented at their research at the Academy of Management annual meeting earlier this month, interviewed senior officials in the Obama administration to understand how successful managers make important decisions. (You may not agree with every decision out of Washington, but government officials routinely deal with complex issues and information that’s not always certain—much like any global corporation.) What the researchers found surprised them, and applies to all managers, whether in the private or public sector.

The authors asked administration officials to discuss their most difficult decision. Some spoke about closing popular programs, going against superiors, or defying the recommendations of other agencies. Almost all cited cases where they felt sure of the right decision, but making it required courage because it came with repercussions.

“Their most difficult decision was not deciding what the right thing to do was but to be willing to do it. In other words, these were decisions requiring courage in the face of some personal, political, or organizational risk,” the authors wrote.

These decisions didn’t rise to the level of JFK’s classic, Profiles in Courage, but the message is clear: Today’s management literature celebrates the consensus-seeker, silo-busting, and dissent-is-cool manager. But you have to wonder how many times consensus is substituted for what’s politically correct.

The best executives, the researchers suggest, have a “decision-making ambidexterity.” They’re comfortable making tough decisions that require assessing loads of complex data, but also know when a call they make means those above them need to hear that Tom Petty tune.

Sager is director of special projects for Businessweek.com.

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