Catalyst Newsletter

Conquer Indecision Image

Conquer Indecision

All About Us

We are a Chicago- and Atlanta-based coaching and consulting company passionate about facilitating individual, team and organizational change.

We apply cutting-edge, theoretical and practical coaching approaches to help individuals, teams and organizations bring about significant personal and professional transformation.


Failure to execute kills companies; don’t let it happen to yours 

When a company's performance is subpar, many people are quick to blame lack of innovation, poor management or a sluggish economy. But a company culture of indecision, marked by a consistent failure to execute, is often the core issue, according to Ram Charan, author of “Leaders at All Levels” and “What the Customer Wants You to Know.” The good news: Leaders can reverse such a culture using three effective steps.

According to Charan, who studied corporate underperformance for decades, failures of execution share a common cause: Something went awry in the personal interactions needed to produce results. Specifically, people failed to take decisive action.

While the inability to take decisive action is rooted in a company’s culture, says Charan, it can change. After all, leaders create a culture of indecisiveness, and leaders can break it.

Charan recommends that executives take three actions to conquer indecision: engender intellectual honesty in the connections between people, ensure that action is taken based on honest dialogue, and follow through by rewarding good behavior and coaching those who struggle.

“By taking these three approaches and using every encounter as an opportunity to model open and honest dialogue, a leader can set the tone for an organization, moving it from paralysis to action,” writes Charan.


Every day, problems and ideas are discussed by your employees — and the tone of this dialogue can create or inhibit a culture of decisiveness.

Is information shared or withheld? Are assumptions challenged, or do they go unchallenged? Are disagreements brought to the surface or smoothed over?

“Dialogue is the basic unit of work in an organization,” says Charan, and “the quality of the dialogue determines how people gather and process information, how they make decisions, and how they feel about one another and about the outcome of these decisions.”

That, says Charan, is because dialogue shapes people’s behaviors and beliefs — which in turn make up a corporate culture — faster and more permanently than anything else.

To break a culture of indecision, then, a leader should start by engendering intellectual honesty in the connections among employees. To do so, lead by example: Use each encounter you have with employees as an opportunity to behave the way you want them to behave.

This may be easier said than done, because decisive dialogue is hard to define. To give you an idea of what you must do, however, Charan asks us to remember that decisive dialogue encourages creativity, allows tensions to surface, and resolves them by fully airing every relevant viewpoint.

The reason it works: “Because such dialogue is a process of intellectual inquiry rather than of advocacy, a search for truth rather than a contest, people feel emotionally committed to the outcome,” Charan writes. “The outcome seems ‘right’ because people have helped shape it. They are energized and ready to act.” 

Dialogue Killers




Dangling Dialogue

No one understands what happened, and there are no clear action items.

Create closure by ensuring that everyone knows who will do what. 

Information Clogs 

All of the relevant information does not come out, so an important point comes to light after a decision has been reached, reopening the dialogue. 

Ensure that the right people are present; ecourage candor; ask what's missing before making a decision. 

Piecemeal Perspectives

People stick to their own views, failing to acknowledge that others have valid opinions. 

Ask for alternatives and ensure all sides of the issue have been represented by coaching people to share. 


Conversation is not directed, so negative behaviors flourish. 

Regularly signal which behaviors are acceptable and sanction those who persist in negative behavior. 



Setting the tone with honest dialogue is only the first step in truly transforming a culture of indecision, however. Leaders must also ensure that a company’s “social operating mechanisms” — the situations through which people do business, such as meetings — are based on honest dialogue.

Robust social operating mechanisms, writes Charan, consistently include four characteristics: openness, candor, informality and closure.

Openness means that the outcome is not predetermined. In any successful meeting, participants need to know there is an honest search for options, and their ideas count.

Candor is a willingness to speak the unspeakable, even if it involves airing conflicts that undermine apparent consensus. “Candor means that people express their real opinions, not what they think team players are supposed to say,” writes Charan.

Informality is an ambience of casualness. Presentations are not prepared; meetings flow naturally. This, Charan writes, encourages candor. When presentations and comments are scripted, participants are wary of saying anything that challenges them. Informality has the opposite effect, he says, in that it reduces defensiveness. 

Closure is the communication, at the end of a meeting, regarding what participants need to do. By assigning actions and deadlines and establishing accountability, leaders encourage decisiveness. “Lack of closure, coupled with a lack of sanctions, is the primary reason for a culture of indecision,” writes Charan.


In many meetings, successful outcomes are killed by one of these four types:

  • Extortionists hold the whole group ransom until others see it their way
  • Sidetrackers go off on tangents or delve into unnecessary detail
  • Silent liars don’t express their true opinions, or they agree to things they have no intention of doing
  • Dividers have parallel conversations or seek support for their viewpoint after the meeting


The final step in creating a decisive culture is following through: offering honest feedback, rewarding high achievers and coaching those who struggle.

Charan writes that follow-through may take place in person, on the telephone or in the routine conduct of a social operating mechanism.

A particularly good tool for follow-through, however, is the performance review. “Few mechanisms encourage directness more effectively than performance and compensation reviews, especially if they are explicitly linked to social operating mechanisms,” Charan says.

Unfortunately, the performance review process is often a mindless ritual. “Check the appropriate box, keep up the good work, here’s your raise, and let’s be sure to do this again next year,” writes Charan. “Sorry — gotta run.”

Charan encourages leaders to use performance reviews for genuine conversation that gives employees a chance to learn the sometimes-painful truths that will help them develop, however difficult that may be, especially for those who perform the worst. “Delivering negative feedback tests the strength of a leader,” he writes.

As an example, he points to Dick Brown of Electronic Data Systems (EDS), who recalled a performance review with an employee who had considered himself one of the best performers and was shocked to find himself close to the bottom of the employee ranking roster. When the employee asked how, given that he performed as well this year as he did last year, Brown offered two possible explanations. The first was that the employee wasn’t as good as he thought he was, and the second was that even if the employee was as good as he thought, his peers were getting better.  


Many leaders believe that a company’s products or operational strengths — from Apple’s innovative personal computing devices to Walmart’s logistical prowess — determine a company’s success. According to Charan, however, products and operational strengths don’t set the most successful organizations apart, because they can all be rented or imitated. “What can’t be easily duplicated are the decisive dialogues and robust operating mechanisms and their links to feedback and follow-through,” says Charan. “These factors constitute an organization’s most enduring competitive advantage, and they are heavily dependent on the character of dialogue that a leader exhibits and thereby influences throughout the organization.”


To see how these steps work in action, Charan points to pharmaceutical giant Pharmacia. Two years after its 1995 merger with Upjohn, Pharmacia’s CEO Fred Hassan set out to create a new, collaborative corporate culture based on honest dialogue. To that end, he arranged for leaders from several units — scientists, clinicians and marketers — to meet regularly. Compensation was linked to the actions of the group, with every member’s compensation based on the time to bring the drug to market, the time for the drug to reach peak profitable share, and total sales.

By making scientists, clinicians and marketers jointly responsible for the product through its life cycle, Hassan sought to develop a product that was better all around. The result was Zyvox, one of the major pharmaceutical success stories of recent years.


Indecision often goes undetected because, unlike open hostility, it ebbs below the surface of a company’s corporate culture. However, its effects can be equally damaging to a company’s performance. The good news: Leaders can step up to the plate and reverse this destructive trend by modeling honest dialogue and by implementing coaching strategies with their team members.

The first step, as in correcting any problem, is recognizing its existence. How would you characterize employees’ dialogue with one another — and with management?

If the interaction among employees is marked by vagueness, avoidance, information-hogging or closed-mindedness, it will likely be reflected in a corporate culture of inaction, where no one is willing to stick their necks out and make a decision. Nothing likely moves forward. And the company’s performance pays the price.

Sound familiar? If so, it’s time to delve deeper — and to take corrective action. What may be causing employees to hoard information, or to be so closed-minded? Is there an element in the work environment that may be either threatening or causing competition rather than cooperation?

It may take months … it may take years … but the payoff will become evident. Interaction based on intellectual honesty, where information is openly shared and disagreements are openly aired and brought to resolution is healthy and, ultimately, breeds an environment where things happen. Action is taken, progress is made and companies achieve great performance levels.

For more information, see the Harvard Business Review article, “Conquering a Culture of Indecision.” 




[Jody Michael Associates] leads you to achieve what you believed was impossible. This process can be difficult, but the reward is beautiful.”

-- Zackary A. Prince, Paralegal/Writer
Web Analytics