Read the Room

I’m a stickler for good process.

If you live in Ontario Canada, or have been watching the news from elsewhere, you may be aware that this week has been a gong show on that front. We’ve been subject to chaotic leadership of the highest (lowest?) order as our province navigates COVID-19’s third wave.

In trying to make sense of it all, I find myself drawing on what I know about stakeholder engagement and collective decision making.

I am used to policy making happening something like this:

Decision makers listen to input, make a decision, and occasionally adjust that decision based on further feedback. The initial input is usually from people with a variety of kinds of expertise on the issue — lived experience, scientific data ,research, comparative analysis etc.

Under the current leadership in Ontario, policy making (even before the pandemic) happens more like this:

The government appears to make a decision, watches where that decision creates public uproar, then sometimes back pedals on part of it.

Having just finished Adam Grant’s Think Again,  I am trying to value the skill of rethinking a decision. This week, the government did fortunately reconsider their initial stance on police powers and playgrounds, for which I am grateful. Let’s give credit where it’s due. But the week before, they reversed an announcement about sending kids back to in-person school in a matter of hours with apparently no new information or feedback in between. That seems more like confusion than unlearning to me.

Their approach to decision making differs from the first example in when the listening occurs, and to whom they are listening. And in one other critical respect: it ignores the context, which is one of utterly exhausted people.

People pour emotional energy into trying to influence a decision, anticipating its implications, understanding it, adapting to it  and registering their opinions about it once it’s made. There is stress involved, and constant flip flopping magnifies that stress.

Life 14+ months into a pandemic is hard enough without leaders requiring us to respond to chaos they’ve created. We’re running on fumes. Our energy is our most precious commodity right now, and this policy making process has further drained it rather than shoring it up.

So what can leaders learn?

  • Listen in advance of deciding
  • Listen to those whose expertise aligns with what needs to be decided
  • Design a decision-making process that considers the emotional state of those who will be affected by the decision
  • Be willing not only to course correct but to apologize when you’ve made a misstep
  • Be a positive contributor to the energy of your people

Apparently, I’m not only a stickler for process, but also for paying attention to context. I wrote in my book Nimble against being the Oblivious Facilitator. I’m still not a fan. It’s as important as ever to read the room, even when that room is the size of an entire province.

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