Boaty McBoatface: Is it ever a good idea to let your employees make decisions?

The Boaty McBoatface story made great headlines and drummed up a bit of free publicity, it also spoke volumes about whether to let employees make decisions.

Letting employees make decisions: sinking ship

You’ve just built a £200m ship for scientific research in the Antarctic. Everything is finally ready to go – except the name. You decide to let the public choose, and results look promising: names like ‘RSS Endeavour’ and ‘RSS Attenborough’ are proving popular.

But then you see ‘RSS Boaty McBoatface’ climbing up the results. Surely not, you think. And yet, with 124, 109 votes, it wins. The British public and their warped sense of humour have let you, your £200m ship, the Antarctic, and David Attenborough down.

Unfortunately, this was the very real situation Duncan Wingham at the Natural Environment Research Council found himself in this month. While the story made great headlines and drummed up a bit of free publicity, it also spoke volumes about whether to hand over control in business and let employees make decisions.

The ultimate dilemma: should you let employees make decisions?

Letting employees make big decisions can either be liberating or unexpectedly devastating, as Boaty McBoatface proves. Done right, it’s a great way to build a trusting collaborative team. Done without a little forethought, it’s a great way to end up with undesirable, damaging outcomes.

This post takes a look at the risks and benefits of involving your colleagues in big decisions, and how to strike a healthy balance between collaboration and control.

Consider the risks

Letting employees make decisions: angry mob
There are lots of reasons to nurture an environment where employees contribute to improving the business. Staff feel a part of the company’s success, which motivates and inspires them to do what they do better. It’s a delicate balance to strike though, so it’s worth asking yourself some questions before you hand over the reigns.

  1. How much do you trust your colleagues?

    Your company has grown, and you’re looking to re-organise your staff to create levels of authority. If you let your employees decide who deserves a promotion you may see people position themselves higher than they are qualified for simply for personal gain. It’s important to ask yourself if you trust your colleagues to make a decision that is best for the business, not themselves. If you don’t trust your colleagues to make the right decision, ask yourself why – could you do more to engage employees, or shake up your hiring practices?
  2. Why are you handing over the control?

    You also have to think about whether you’ve put employees in control for the right reasons. If you want colleagues to contribute to the big decisions, then you have to start with a solid relationship. Allowing sudden freedom to staff who aren’t used to or expecting it isn’t a quick fix for building a collaborative culture, or a way to hand off the nasty decisions you don’t want to make. In fact, it’s more likely to land you in a Boaty McBoatface situation; if employees don’t trust you or don’t trust you’ll follow-up on their decision, they may sabotage or undermine the opportunity. Take time to build trust and team spirit first. If you give staff the chance to make a difference, you’ll increase the likelihood that they’ll approach it with the right attitude.

Strike a balance

Putting employees in control: group talking

Being hesitant to throw delicate management decisions to the masses doesn’t mean that you can’t have a collaborative business. We’ve already mentioned how asking for staff contribution can help boost loyalty and sense of worth, but that’s not the only benefit.

Gathering feedback and suggestions from your workforce can reveal their true potential. A staff member who pipes up with some great ideas for the next Christmas party might be a great addition to HR meetings. A colleague who is always sharing articles about the latest social media sites could give your marketing a shake-up.

Open up discussions that allow everyone to share ideas, and your team is likely to start collaborating across departments and producing amazing results.

I will go down with this ship

At the end of the day, as the Natural Environment Research Council discovered, you have to commit to handing over control. It is yet to finalise the name, but will have to decide whether to overrule public opinion, or succumb to it.

In business though, if you don’t like the result you get and go with your own instinct, not only have you wasted time, but you’ve lost your employee’s trust and respect too.

The people voting for Boaty McBoatface had nothing to lose. Having a little fun by letting employees make decisions on smaller issues is a great way to continue developing a collaborative relationship with your staff. Our sister company Articulate recently named a sprint ‘Operation Invigorate 3000’ by majority vote. Harmless fun, but perhaps a warning not to let the staff re-name the company any time soon.

Hat Tip: The Illustrated London News, Mi Licht, Christian Senger

One comment on “Boaty McBoatface: Is it ever a good idea to let your employees make decisions?

  1. I agree, but from a marketing perspective, everyone knows about the expedition and research vessel named Boaty McBoatface, now they just need the foresight to capitalize on the publicity. they could turn McBoatface into a personality that is bigger than their organization …if they had the foresight!

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