Great Leaders Delegate Decisions. Here’s How.

If you’re feeling frustrated that members of your team aren’t making more decisions on their own, there are three possible causes:

  1. You don’t believe they’re capable of making a decision.
  2. You’re worried about how it will look if you don’t make all the decisions.
  3. You don’t know how to manage in any other way.

The good news is that there’s a tool that can help: The Delegation Decision Tree created by Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations.

Ideally, all decisions should be made by the people who have the knowledge to make them. The Delegation Decision Tree can help you discern who those people are by dividing decisions into four categories based on the level of impact they’ll have on the organization:

  • Leaf decisions shouldn’t involve a manager. If the decision is a wrong one, it will have a minimal negative impact and be fixable. The manager shouldn’t even hear about these decisions.
  • Branch decisions also shouldn’t be made by a manager, but he, or she should be notified when they are made.
  • Trunk decisions have more impact on the organization, so they should be approved by, or made by the manager.
  • Root decisions can fundamentally change the course of the organization. Most likely these decisions will be made by the manager, or at a level above him, or her.

Here’s an example of how the Delegation Decision Tree can work:

Derek is a CFO who’s very good at tech, finance and accounting, but he’s still learning how to lead. All of his managers have processes worked out about who is going to do what and when, but only if nothing goes wrong.

As soon as something goes off course, they’ve all been trained to go to Derek because he doesn’t believe they’re capable of making decisions, he’s worried about how it will look if he doesn’t make decisions when there is a problem, and he doesn’t know any other way to lead.

Because the staff can only do things that are predictable and boring, they aren’t getting to use their skills and intellect, and are becoming bored and dissatisfied. They’re also a little resentful that even though they have the knowledge to fix a problem, they aren’t being asked for their expertise. Plus, it’s frustrating that Derek gets all of the credit when an issue is solved, even when he doesn’t get it right!

Derek, on the other hand, is mad that he works till all hours of the night and his team leaves at 5:30. He wishes they could make more decisions.

Once Derek starts sorting the decisions that need to be made by type (leaf, branch, trunk and root) and then designating who on his team will make each type of decision, he realizes that there’s not a huge risk associated with leaf decisions. If something goes wrong, they’re fixable, so he feels more comfortable not being involved.

In my experience, when you use a model like this to delegate decisions, complaints about people not taking on enough responsibility, or not being able to make decisions start to disappear. Over and over (I’m going to say 80% of the time) people do a great job with their newfound responsibility. It was actually the manager’s belief about their employee’s abilities that was holding them back. They were capable of making decisions all along.

Try this:

  • Write a list of decisions that need to be made on your team.
  • Categorize them as leaf, branch, trunk and root decisions using the guidelines above.
  • Assign team members to each type of decision.
  • Communicate with them what level of decisions will be made by which people.
  • Let me know how it goes!


Onward and keep tapping your talent,


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