Decision making in multi-national teams

One of the first things managers of multi-national teams experience is different approaches to decision-making. You’re the boss, right? So you take the decision? Well, maybe not. You need to understand your team’s attitude to decision-making. Gather them round the table (or by video-conference if in multiple locations) and get them to read the following questions and to choose their preferred response.

A late paying client has missed the deadline given to make the payment. Which response by the team leader would you prefer:

  1. The team leader informs everyone that they have decided that in future the client will have to pay in advance before receiving any service.
  2. The team leader refers to the company late payment policy and explains that in future the client will have to pay in advance before receiving service.
  3. The team leader invites everyone to suggest a course of action and the team settle on an approach that everyone is comfortable with.
  4. The team leader investigates the individual circumstances of the client and presents the data to the team who makes their decision based on this data.
  5. As number 4, but they ask the team to agree a course of action.

There are two different decision-making choices here and both have pros and cons:

  1. Authoritative or participative. Does your team prefer you to take the decision or do they expect to be involved?
  2. Policy-based or fact-based. Does your team respond best to application of the policy or to consideration of the facts of the case?

Before asking your team to answer the questions above, understand your own preferences. Do you prefer to take the decision or do you need consensus? Do you prefer to apply the policy or consider the facts on their own merit?

Ask your team to choose their preference. Map these responses on a piece of paper. What do you notice? Are there any striking differences? Where are the clashes? Remember the purpose of these questions is to spark discussion. There is no right answer.

An authoritative leader with a participative team may be seen as overbearing and insensitive. A participative team leader with a team that expects an authoritative approach may be seen as weak and indecisive. A leader that follows policy with a team that prefers the facts of each case to be considered may be regarded as bureaucratic while a leader that takes decisions on a case by case basis may be seen as inconsistent.

What can you do about it?

The key to becoming a more effective international manager is to be more adaptable in the approaches you use. If you are instinctively authoritative but your teams tends towards a participative approach, how can you use a decision-making approach that suits them better? The tips below will help you shift from one approach to another:

  1. From authoritative to participative: Explain that they need to make the decision that they all feel most comfortable with. Ask them to brainstorm all options first. Then ask them to agree on the criteria they will assess the options with. Give them time limits for this. If there is no agreement you can then take the decision but be sure to give them sufficient opportunity to put forward their options.
  2. From participative to authoritative: Explain that you will taking the decision and that it is not up for discussion however you will explain your rationale. Invite comment after you have explained your decision but do not change it even if there is disquiet. Try to understand the disquiet but stick with your decision.
  3. From policy-based to situation-based: Collect all the relevant facts. Think broadly about what is relevant. In the example above, the client’s history and personal relationships with staff may be relevant. When you have all the information, then make the decision.
  4. From situation-based to policy-based: Where there is a policy, simply review the situation against the policy and act. Where there is no policy as such, list any precedents and act similarly to the precedent.

Get your team to feedback on your shifts in decision-making style. Does it better suit their culture? Different circumstances may mean that they shift from one preferred approach to another. For example, a team may prefer a participative approach normally but in a crisis a more authoritative approach may be preferred.

The purpose of these culture questions is to discuss preferences and to give you some tools to help you navigate areas where conflict can arise when none is intended. Talk through with your team how they like decisions to be made and adjust your approach to better meet their preferences.


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