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Helping Managers Make Good Judgement Calls

Today’s post comes to us from The Workforce Institute advisory board member David Creelman, chief executive officer of Creelman Research.

There are several ways HR can help managers make good judgement calls on nuanced issues such as flex work, dress code, or how they distribute their bonus budgets. However, many of these approaches can easily backfire. Let’s consider three attractive (but risky) approaches:

1) Embrace bureaucracy. Many leaders, especially in staff roles like HR, want consistency. They say, let’s create clear, detailed policies that managers are required to follow.

2) Avoid bureaucracy. Many leaders want to avoid bureaucracy. They say let’s just let managers make a judgement call on the issue (e.g., how much flex work is allowed in their team).

3) Build rigorous processes. Some leaders recognize situations that require judgement are varied and subtle. They want those decisions made not by following a rule book but by following a process that engages a wide range of stakeholders with due time for deliberation to ensure a high-quality judgement.

All of these can easily go wrong. Avoiding bureaucracy can lead to a Wild West of inconsistent and, too often, poor decisions. Embracing bureaucracy can lead to stifling policy manuals that get ever-more complex without becoming more useful. Rigorous processes can be so slow and expensive that they satisfy no one, even though they do lead to good judgements in the end.

The trick for HR leaders is to recognize there is another approach that can navigate into an optimal space for supporting sound, consistent managerial judgement:

4) Flexible guardrails. Use a mix of policy, process, and training to enhance managerial judgement.

Let’s consider enforcing a dress code. What is appropriate will vary a lot from IT to sales, from Toledo to Tokyo, and from the day the media is on a tour to the typical casual Friday. We want managers to have a good deal of flexibility in applying their judgement on what is appropriate while reducing the risk of bad choices.

We can achieve this with some general policy guidelines that provide direction without undue detail, a little training just to be sure they understand the principles, and perhaps a process where they don’t make a decision — such as telling an employee their attire is inappropriate — without following a simple process such as talking it through with their own manager first.

When it comes to an area like deciding on bonuses, the policies, training, and processes are likely to be more rigorous and constraining, while still leaving a good deal of judgement with the manager.

Key Takeaway

When you lay out the logic this way, it seems so self-evident that it hardly needs to be said. However, how often have you seen companies embrace bureaucracy to the point it becomes stifling; then in response, avoid bureaucracy and end up in the Wild West; or in a well-meaning attempt to make things right, design impractical rigorous processes?

Leaders often adopt the wrong approaches because they require less thought than the flexible guardrail approach. Putting a label on these things helps remind us which approaches will get us into trouble down the road and point us toward a wider range of options that will support the need to make nuanced judgements.

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