What to do when we become a Dictator-by-Default

By Giles Cox | Blog

Mar 10

Toward the end of last year I led a group of five other post-graduate business students in a competition run by one of our Management Professors. The competition saw fifteen teams of six members test their team decision-making skills against one another by running the same simulated manufacturing company for ten weeks. I regarded the competition as a means of gaining insight into the inner workings of a short-lived decision-making team: how we would form, what type of decision-making process would become normalized and whether we could develop from a group to real team. My initial expectations had me believe that I would be responsible for facilitating the decision-making process by keeping discussion on point and managing any conflict as we reached group consensus.

Team Photo

Perhaps you can imagine my surprise when minutes into our first meeting conversation stopped, and all eyes turned to me to execute our team’s first major decision. I chalked this down to first meeting nerves and impression management, however, over the coming weeks the scenario kept reoccurring. We would reach an impasse regarding an important decision; all input would cease and the team would turn to me, as elected leader, to make the decision.

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Diagnose – The Problem

A diagnosis of the problem finally occurred when reading a HBR article by manager Bob Frisch. Frisch had correctly described what was happening in our team, labeling it the ‘dictator-by-default syndrome’.

The Executive Team is deliberating about a critical strategic choice, but no matter how much time and effort the team members expend, they cannot reach a satisfactory decision. Then comes that uncomfortable moment when all eyes turn to the CEO. The team waits for the boss to make the final call, yet when it’s made, few people like the decision. Blame, though unspoken, is plentiful. The CEO blames the executives for indecisiveness; they resent the CEO for acting like a dictator. If this sounds familiar, you’ve experienced what I call the dictator-by-default syndrome

 (Bob Frisch, “When Teams Can’t Decide”)

Over the last few weeks I had become frustrated with the scenario occurring, I believed that our decisions could be more effective if we were forming them with more group input. Having finally recognized the problems affecting our team I began to consider ways of inspiring change.

Identifying the Causes

The situation was occurring because opinions weren’t adequately being voiced, there was a general reticence amongst members to allow any form of conflict to occur during our meetings. As such, when members were on the verge of a potential conflict they would turn to me as the person they had elected their leader to decide for them as a means of conflict avoidance. Why there was such a reluctance to allow conflict remains partly unclear to me.

As a culturally diverse team we may have all been predisposed toward adopting somewhat different decision-making processes.

Cultures differ enormously when it comes to decision making–particularly, how quickly decisions should be made and how much analysis is required beforehand

When a manager behaves like an arbitrator or a judge, making a final decision without team involvement, neither the manager nor the team gains much insight into why the team has stalemated

 (Brett, Behfar & Kern, ‘Managing Multicultural Teams’)

Inspire – an Effective Change

For my team this meant we individually had to understand what was occurring, furthermore it had to be known that I could no longer enable the problems persistence through yielding and making a decision. Change to a group dynamic, such as the normed decision-making process, may initially cause a degree of anxiety in team members. Consequent anxiety is particularly the case when ambiguity is present regarding a change, therefore efforts must be made to eliminate ambiguity regarding change.

Separating Symptoms & Causes

Outlining both the potential and actual symptoms of the problem is a prime opportunity to stress the need for effective change to occur. These symptoms could be the deteriorated of collaboration caused by consequent resentment, or they may be lack of real strategic insight in decisions. However, in order to prevent future re-occurrences, the actual causes of the problem need to be discovered so that they can be overcome.

Your Action – Moving Forward & Effecting Change

Finally, once causes have been identified appropriate recourse can be addressed. The question may be asked, what changes could eliminate or vastly reduce the effects of these causes of the problem. In my team attitudes regarding conflict were discussed and team members began to entertain the prospect that certain conflict could be beneficial. For our situation, this meant a type of conflict that Daniel Goleman has described:

Open discussion and disagreement about ideas- as opposed to attacks on people who hold disparate views- sharpen decision making.

 (The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership)

Implementing any strategy of adaptation can take time and a great deal of awareness from all team members. However, if successful the incidences of the dictator-by-default scenario should dramatically reduce. If a team is suffering from a lack of conflict, attempt to instil the notion that disagreement is not personal, instead it can act as an important flag that further analysis is needed. What course of action a team ultimately chooses though, must be geared toward overcoming the causes of the issue and not the symptoms. The reality is that there is no fix all solution to the dictator-by-default scenario.

Stating that though, a starting point of open discussion aimed at addressing the problem and its causes and effects is as solid a foundation as any for collectively formulating a way forward.


For those interested in further reading, referenced works are listed below:




About the Author

Giles Cox is currently a Masters student of International Business Management at the University of Auckland. His approach to management issues is largely directed by his previous postgraduate studies in analytic philosophy & predominant interest being in human rationality. For this reason he holds a particular interest in how we as people do, and should, reach decisions that are geared toward promoting desirable outcomes. In his spare-time, Giles can usually be either found teaching tutoring pre-med students in logical problem-solving, out on the water fishing, or playing blues music around Auckland.

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