This issue of American Theatre magazine on documentary theatre is making me think about how challenging it must be for an artist to decide what stories to include in their performance, after sourcing from hundreds of hours of interviews, video footage, and pages of information. These are not easy decisions, but I think they come down to understanding what resources they have and sensing which stories will have the biggest impact.
We often feel the pressure to do everything—to keep everything. The challenge of dealing with finite resources, not just time and audiences’ attention spans but money, is a real one. That’s a dilemma I also face in my own decision-making process and philosophy. I was struck by this excerpt from a Harvard Business Review article, “Just Make a Decision Already,” by psychologist Nick Tasler, as it serves as a good framework for this column and a good compass for my actions:
Strategic decisiveness is one of the most vital success attributes for leaders in every position and every industry, but few leaders understand where it comes from or how to find more of it. It is not surprising that picking one strategic direction and then decisively pursuing that direction are hallmarks of good leadership, if not boilerplate management skills.
Though efficiency may be an aspect of decisive decision-making, this model is not solely about expediency. Before making a decision, I find the following very helpful: I identify the problem; start generating ideas to set goals/solve the problem; gauge the decision’s urgency and a timeline for the decision; and determine who should be involved in gathering insight and collecting data. This pre-decision period is deliberate. During this time I test potential goals by weighing the likelihood and values of different outcomes. While initially some may not be enthusiastic about the decision, it gives them clarity, direction, and a more defined way to do their work.
Tasler’s HBR article notes that researchers Shelley Taylor at UCLA and Peter Gollwitzer at NYU have discovered that “when contemplating a decision we have not yet made, virtually everyone will temporarily exhibit the same personality traits—neuroticism, low sense of control, pessimism.” Tasler adds, “As soon as we make the decision and begin charting the steps for executing it, our brains automatically switch gears. All of a sudden, we feel confident, capable, and in control…That initial decisiveness puts them in a more decisive mindset which begets even more decisiveness.”
Unfortunately, one of the major disadvantages of this model is the possibility of one’s ego and biases taking control, rendering a decision immutable. It’s important to establish clear lines of communication, such as a feedback loop. Ignoring new information, and refusing to alter course when that information warrants it, will put you and your organization at greater risk for failure and could become costly.
Another common decision-making model is consensus, in which all participants must support or at least live with a decision. There are advantages to this model: strong collaboration resulting in greater transparency and cross-departmental learning, and the exchange of information from a diverse group who bring their unique sets of experiences and areas of expertise. For this process to work, the model requires good facilitation and structure (i.e., agenda, timeline, and clearly defined outcomes). If these two requirements are not met, group decisions are less efficient; it takes a lot of time to come to a consensus decision. Without good facilitation and structure, meetings can get bogged down in trivial details that matter a lot to one person but not to others.
By nature of the model, consensus decision-making distributes responsibilities for the outcomes and therefore diffuses accountability. It is too easy for any one of the members in this decision-making body to deny personal responsibility and blame others if the decision ends up being a bad one.
What’s more, research shows that another disadvantage of consensus decision-making is the danger of groupthink. I would add that while consensus decision models by their design are created through an equity and inclusion lens, and some of them do work (for example: many ensemble theatres use consensus decision-making quite effectively), the truth is that in some cases two factions develop: an in group and an out group. The in group is made up of people who actively caucus outside the decision model, forming bonds of loyalty and advocating for specific outcomes. The in group produces an illusion of impenetrability, and significantly lifts and rates its members’ ideas and undervalues the abilities of its opponents or the out group. In an ostensible effort to be more equitable and inclusive, the in group ends up dominating the decision-making, taking actions that are unintentionally dehumanizing to the out group. I’ve seen this dynamic play out repeatedly, and people end up feeling alienated.
How leaders make decisions will always be tested and criticized. There is no one size that fits all. One constant in decisive and consensus decision-making is the need for transparency and collaboration. Our work, like the artist telling a story onstage, is about the people. Never losing sight of why we do this work, and how our decisions impact the lives of our staff and audiences, will enable us all to give performances worthy of thunderous applause.