“You don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen!”
This phrase is used to suggest when too many people work on the same project, the quality of the final product and the speed at which decisions are made suffer as a result.
As I moved up the leadership chain, other leaders used this phrase to justify why they made decisions in isolation or with a small inner circle. Assuming other leaders knew what they were talking about, I adopted this mental model.
The following are times I believed less was more when it came to staff input:
Grading Policies: "People get so heated! Let's use a small group.”
Student Handbook: “We can figure it out as an admin team.”
MTSS/RTI: "The less people involved in planning ... the better!"
Interviews: “Having a big committee will only complicate things.”
Scheduling (Block vs. Periods): "Let's just ask department chairs."
In each instance, I believed having a select group of individuals at the table would allow us to make the best decision in the shortest amount of time. Furthermore, by shutting out the voices of other staff – some of whom would bring conflicting opinions – I figured we would avoid unnecessary decision-making drama.
I now realize this approach was ill-advised.
Because they were not involved in the process, staff felt little commitment to decisions that were made. And when marching orders hit snags in the road – as all five examples did – frontline employees were not motivated to actively search for solutions.
"No one asked me," staff would explain. "I could have told you that wouldn't work."
In Mulitipliers, Liz Wiseman shares the following:
“When leaders play the role of decision maker, they carry the burden of making the right decision and carrying it through to completion. This can be a heavy burden. But when the leader engages a team in making a decision, they distribute this load to the team. Having worked through the issues, the team will put their full weight behind the decision.”
When you make decisions, where does the burden fall?
Bosses who make decisions alone or with a small inner circle play a risky game. Of course, when decisions are correct leaders come out looking pretty smart. However, when decisions are wrong - as most leadership decisions are - leaders who have not generated buy-in with staff immediately assume burden of the decision. Not only do people question the decision, employees also lose trust in the leader’s ability to make wise decisions moving forward.
Rather than make decisions in isolation, leaders must include others in the process. Research shows that diversity of opinions leads to better decision-making. Administrators who actively engage faculty with diverse perspectives generate a comprehensive perspective on the problem. Furthermore, when staff are asked for input, they are far more likely to support the plan when things get difficult.
“I don’t need to worry about this,” some readers may be thinking. “I always include others in decisions.”
While many bosses believe they promote a culture of collaborative decision making, research proves otherwise. One recent study indicates that 80 percent of leaders believe they actively seek employee input on decisions, whereas only 10 percent of employees believe they are "fully empowered" to help make critical decisions.
If your school or district were surveyed, would this same disconnect occur?
Another important thing to understand is that today’s employees want to be a part of the decision-making process. According to Forbes Magazine, younger workers “expect their views to be noticed and acted upon” at work. And rather than blindly follow directives – as was the case in previous generations – modern employees want to understand why decisions are made.
“I’m sick of younger employees being ‘unhappy’ at work,” some leaders complain. “They need to stop whining and understand that life doesn’t always revolve around them.”
While this sounds reasonable, school leaders must realize that the balance of workplace power has shifted. Thanks to a historic imbalance of supply and demand, employees now hold unprecedented leverage on employers and will bolt when they don’t believe their voice is being heard.
Looking to improve collaborative decision-making but not sure where to start? Consider these seven ideas:
Explain the Process: When making a complex decision, leaders must tell staff how the decision will be made before the process begins. Who will be involved? How is feedback gathered? How long will the decision take? Bosses who invest time to explain the process encounter far fewer issues when a decision is made.
Ask For Feedback: For each decision, leaders must determine “Who will be impacted by this decision?” While not every staff member will be able to weigh-in on decisions, leaders must consult with those who are closest to the issue. Don’t have the time to meet with several individuals? Online surveys, collaborative documents (e.g., Google Docs), and email help with efficiency.
Leverage Feedback: Have you ever worked for a leader who asked for feedback … but then never explained how the feedback was used? Bosses must get in the habit of reporting how employee feedback drives decisions. This practice is especially powerful when feedback aligns with the decision being made.
All Means All: When decisions are made in a group setting, it is important that all voices are heard. Too often, teams will look at the person in the room with the most influence (or the loudest voice) and follow his or her lead. Leaders must create an environment where all staff are encouraged to voice their honest opinions, even if those opinions differ from the group.
Breaking Ties: When feedback reveals a clear winner, leaders would be wise to make the decision that mirrors the feedback. But what happens when there is no clear solution? This is when leaders must fulfill one of their most important responsibilities: breaking ties. Again, leaders who explain this process ahead of time eliminate unnecessary split-decision drama.
Divergent Opinions: What if the group shares a collective opinion that differs from the leader? In most cases, leaders would be wise to yield to the group. While there will be moments when leaders must go against the grain ... these instances should be rare. Leaders who adopt a "disagree and commit" mindset (discussed at length in Learning Curve) build trust and earn the respect of colleagues.
Communicate the Decision: Once a decision is made, leaders must articulate the decision to the broader audience. If the decision was complex or heated, leaders are advised to explain how the decision was made. In terms of communicating the decision, face-to-face (opportunities for employee questions) and email (clear documentation of the decision) both offer advantages. In a perfect world, leaders explain the decision in person and then follow up with a detailed email.
I'll admit: I used to hate inviting cooks into the kitchen. Not only does asking others for feedback make the decision-making process longer, it increases the likelihood that your idea won’t be selected.
However, I now realize those drawbacks are nothing compared to dealing with the aftermath of a bad decision.
School leaders must eliminate "you don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen" from their vocabulary. Instead, we must actively seek input from those who are impacted by a decision to ensure their opinions are heard before a decision is made.
If you liked this article, you'll love my book Learning Curve!
Learning Curve is 360 pages and PACKED with useful ideas on leadership, education, and personal growth.