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Facing Hard Decisions

Hard leadership decisions

Leaders routinely face hard decisions. From the big decisions on hiring, firing, or promotions to performance ratings and everything in between. Being a high-performing leader requires a critical evaluation of issues from all sides and all angles, positive and negative, to reach the best decision. Decision-making in this context requires a pragmatic mindset when collecting and analyzing the facts and circumstances. 

Let’s use a typical business scenario. Ana, the head of finance, knows she faces an uncomfortable conversation with her team. She needs to share the company’s challenging financial situation and the need to lay off 4 of the 30-strong team. She must also do so while remaining calm and composed, notwithstanding how she personally feels. 

So how will she face these tough moments?

Human skills support delivering hard decisions

Effective leaders understand that one right and one wrong will never produce a “right”, let me explain. A leader can be 100% correct in the need to confront a challenging situation yet be completely wrong in how they do it. It is the classic balance of what is done and how it is done – the same focus in performance evaluations and ratings. 

Ana will need to find the strength and bravery to share the difficult news that company finances are falling short leading to job losses for colleagues and friends. Her ability to be honest and empathetic could make the difference between the team moving forward or regressing. 

Effective leaders are comfortable sharing opinions that may differ from the “norm” when it is necessary to do so. They recognize that with their role comes greater responsibility, an importance around “doing good”. Facing difficult decisions can easily lead to decision paralysis, a situation where an individual overthinks or over-analyzes a situation, and a result fails to take any action. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what the situation calls for meaning the decision-making process simply gets harder.

Imagine Ana delays sharing the budget challenges, and the need to streamline costs, with her team, because she doesn’t want to upset them or stress them during quarter-end reporting, or a holiday period. The more time that passes, the greater her ablity to rationalize the reasons she tells herself for not saying anything. The result: the team eventually finds out. They feel a sense of disappointment at the lost opportunities anticipated for the upcoming year, or the rework necessary to budgets they had prepared absent key information, or confusion from Ana’s lack of honesty with them. 

Approaches to decision-making for tough situations

So, what approaches can you use to improve your ability to make good decisions as a leader?

There are several techniques:

  • The tried-and-true risk analysis approach
  • Using a decision tree approach
  • Applying the utility theory approach

Use autopilot as a habit for routine decisions:  The concept here is to avoid expending energy on repetitive and trivial decisions, such as what to eat for breakfast. Joseph, for example, loves waffles so that decision is very quick. He can use his energy for other activities during the day.

Use an “if/then” approach for unpredictable choices. The concept here is to use boundaries to define a response. For example, Muhammed lives in a wet climate and opens the door to a grey sky….his if/then approach kicks in. He doesn’t know if it will rain but he’s predetermined that a grey sky causes him to take an umbrella. 

Use a time limit. The concept here is that reasonably equal choices don’t produce a clear or right answer, so perhaps the best decision is to “just decide”. For example, if Letitia is debating between a date night at the movies or at the theatre and neither choice is better, then she just needs to pick one and save her energy for conversation during the date!

Seize your moment to lead through the tough decisions

In each decision and action, we are either moving forward (towards) or backward (away from). As human beings, we need to develop and progress by moving forward. When we do so aligned with our personal core values (such as honesty and integrity, using Ana), we hold a roadmap for high quality and timely decision-making. Equipped with these guiding principles, how would you guide Ana in tackling the hard decisions with her team?

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your insights with others relating to how you break off decision paralysis and lead through the hard decision moments.

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Nina Paley

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