HR Management, Leadership

The Consequences of Leadership: Yes, Indecision IS a Decision

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“My guess is that a good number of firms have been thinking about right-sizing and waiting for someone to provide them cover and we’ll see more of these moves. As difficult as layoffs are, it seems that they will be necessary for some firms to get in synch with the current market dynamics.”

This quote was in reference to the recent layoffs at a major law firm in New York. The law firm, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, is one of the nation’s most prestigious and profitable law firms. They were laying off a large number of lawyers and support staff while also reducing the pay of some of its partners.

This layoff sent shock waves through the industry and underscored the financial difficulties facing the legal profession.

Cowering is not a competency

This quote kind of stopped me in my tracks. It seems to say that as a leader, you should cower to wait until others do what you don’t have the balls to do. So you wait and as soon as the other shoe drops, you finally then step up to do it yourself on behalf of the firm. Wow, that is real leadership!

“While we have been able to avoid these actions in the past, and it is very painful from a human perspective, the management committee believes that these actions are essential now to enable our firm to continue to excel and retain its historic profitability in the new normal,” Barry M. Wolf, Weil’s executive partner, wrote in a firm-wide email.

There have been so many industries that have changed so drastically that their business model will never be the same again. Yes, decisions have to be made, and yes, sometimes it is not going to be pretty. The human perspective is the most devastating cost. This loss causes disruption in people’s lives and in their future.

However as a leader, cowering is not a competency. The image that has been put forth for years is the take charge, Mad Men-type who has all the answers, and with the snap of their fingers, makes a decision and leads the troops to victory.

Indecision is a decision

In real life, that is not the case. There are consequences to all decisions, and in layoffs, the human toll is devastating.

How do we balance the human side vs. the business? Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes but decision-making, however painful, is tough for a lot of us.

Do we trust our intellect or our instinct? Do we have all the information we need or do we consistently seek more? Great decision-makers trust both in arriving at a point. Do we err on the human side or do we make our decision based only on the business? Each of these options brings with it a different dynamic.

Following or leading the herd?

It sometimes can be an emotional process. As the person quoted said above, they wait for cover before they enter the fray.

The wildebeest waits at the edge of the water trying to decide when to cross the river, however each time, there are some in the herd that will make a decision and be the first few to attempt the crossing. They are the ones that consistently get to the other side. The indecisive ones that wait until the masses jump in suffer a higher fatality rate by the crocodile.

Our decisions are not that drastic, but do we lead or do we just follow the herd?

There is no calculation model that we can use that will provide us with every variable that explicitly lays out the outcomes. Decision making is always a gamble, and gamblers need confidence in both their gut feelings and int he quantitative details.

Layoff decisions should always have an emotional connection. I have always told my managers that if you have an impending layoff and can sleep the night before, you need to reconsider your psyche and emotional meter.

Every layoff carries a tremendous toll on people. I will never forget the collapse of Lehman Brothers at the beginning of the 2008 financial collapse. Pictures of people coming out of the building with their possessions in a box was painful to watch.

Walk in their shoes

Now, some may say that decision-making means taking the emotion out of it, but can that really be done? Can we just ignore our gut?

I had a manager that reveled in layoffs; she loved to see people cower when she walked into the office. People would not make eye contact, turn, and go the other way as if that was going to prevent their job loss.

This manager falsely perceived this aura as the ultimate power. That is, until she was called in one afternoon and was told that she was being replaced with a more strategic HR leader who could more accurately guide the organization than simply administer the layoff fallout.

The CEO’s refrain was that he needed more from HR in the new normal.

When she came back to her office, she was shell-shocked. Life is tough when we have to walk in someone else’s shoes. I told her that there were many people that were glad about the decision to replace her because she never showed any emotion during all the layoffs she quarterbacked. Officially, what goes around comes around.

Welcome to the new normal.

Ron Thomas is a human resources officer currently based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He formerly was director, talent and human resources solutions at Buck Consultants (a Xerox Company) and is certified by the Human Capital Institute as a Master Human Capital Strategist (MHCS) and Strategic Workforce Planner (SWP). He's also worked in senior HR roles with Martha Stewart Living and IBM. Ron serves on the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy. He also serves as a faculty partner and executive facilitator at the Human Capital Institute. He has received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence by the World Human Resource Development Congress in Mumbai. Contact him at ronaldtthomas@gmail.com or on Twitter.