I’m waiting! – Why managerial decision making is sometimes so slow

It’s painful.  We did everything we could to get the proposal in on time only to have it seemingly sit there while it is “considered” by your boss.  Hurry up and wait.  It’s frustrating, maddening, and sometimes it feels downright rude.  Especially damaging to good relationships is the vacuum of communication that seems to occur after something (they no doubt, badgered you about) gets submitted.  It seems to go into empty space of leadership contemplation, even though it lives right there on the desk.  It’s RIGHT THERE!   So why does this happen and what can we do to help manage our own timelines?

I work with a number of people in the realm of priority management and a common tool I employ comes from the Four Quadrants model (Covey, S.; Roger, A., Miller, R. 1994.)  The model is based conceptually on rating things based on a spectrum of importance versus a spectrum of urgency.  The result is four quadrants: Urgent and Important, Not Urgent but Important, Urgent but not Important, and neither Urgent nor Important.  The prevailing suggestion is to prioritize tasks in that order.  The quadrant that ends up as urgent but not important is labeled “Deception” by Covey, et. al., primarily because we often deceive ourselves into thinking that if something is urgent it is automatically important.  Here is the rub.  Other people’s requests often go into this category – why?  Because answering someone else request does not necessarily help you get your job done – it helps them get their job done.  So the short end of this is, your boss can ask for something, and although they can bump their task up the list and get a reply from you sooner, but the power dynamics do not work the other way around.  In accordance with the four quadrants, your request shows up as urgent, but not important…and so it is treated as a third priority behind all the other things the boss finds important.  Or at least that could be one reason.

Experts have also studied this phenomenon and have proposed a number of reasons why decision making might take so long.  One reason might be the sheer number of decisions that leaders have to make (Russo, J.E., 2006.)  In his article, Russo argues that  managers hang on to decisions that could easily be delegated in an effort to retain power (2006, p36.)  While this take is somewhat self-serving, it may in fact be subconscious. Others indicate delays in decisions or “catatonic nonresponsiveness” can be a result of intentional and strategic manipulation (Rice, R.E., 2008.)  While both relate to retention of power, one may be a lack of self awareness, the other looks more like organizational land-grabbing.

We too are often at fault when it comes to the perceived delay in decision making by our superiors.  We use the same frilly language that we try to avoid with our employees when giving requests to our boss.  We say, “whenever you get a chance”, or “sometime in the near future,” or the ubiquitous “as soon as possible (ASAP)”.  Well, when the hell is that?  The problem I have with that last one is when we are the ones saying it we are focused on the word “soon”, when we hear it from someone else we focus on the word “possible.”  We give fluffy timelines and do not give project sensitive information.  In short, we assume they know how urgent this is based on their timeline demands of us.

Here are a few things you can do.

  1. Give them a deadline: If a portion of a project is dependent upon a resource or decision, let your boss know when you need a decision and why.  This lets them test the urgency and importance (crucial to an overall goal) and place it in the appropriate quadrant.
  2. Ask when they can get back to you: If the above approach is not practical, let them set the expectation.  At least then you won’t be spiraling in the world of the unknown.
  3. Set a check in schedule: If the schedule is nebulous, ask what an appropriate schedule of checking in may be.  It keeps them accountable and still allows some flexibility as timelines shift
  4. BE SPECIFIC: with all of the above, the achievement of an expectation is only measured by its specificity.  You can’t measure someone’s failure to understand that you meant tomorrow when you said “soon.”

It may not cure all your delay woes but communication has to go both ways.  Despite the omniscience of some managers, many do not have a clear view of project timelines and all the details in between – at least not as well as you do.  Give them a milestone and set the expectations.  If that does not work, try to have a heart-to-heart about how some delays in the communication process are making it difficult for you to be as efficient as you would like to be.  The more you can demonstrate a benefit to them in getting you information faster, the more likely they will take some ownership in getting back to you.


Covey, S: Roger, A.; Miller, R., 1994. First Things First. New York, NY. Simon and Shuster.

Munro, S. (2006). The last bastion of inefficiency. Industrial Engineer: IE, 38(11), 34-39.

Rice, R.E. 2008.

Russo, J. Edward. (2006). WHY SO SLOW?. Industrial Engineer: IE, 38(11), 36.


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