As leaders, we are paid to make decisions and deliver results. When we face a problem, we make decisions, we act, and we succeed or learn.
As we look back on a decision, we often find that the decision made and actions taken were available to us early in the process, but deciding to decide made up most of the time gap between identifying a problem and delivering results.
Why? Our fears keep us from deciding to decide.
There are supporting forces (big Whys) and opposing forces (fears) at work that enable a rapid decision or slow decision-making to a crawl. How we choose to address the conflicting forces—fears—is today’s focus.
To provide some context, supporting forces—the big Whys—include things like client demands, finishing key projects, creating new markets, tackling a merger or acquisition, recruiting the right team members, overcoming a competitive threat, protecting intellectual property, expanding market share, and introducing new products. All these activities require leaders to make multiple, significant decisions. Each supports a bias for rapid decision-making.
How so? How and how fast we make decisions impacts decision speed, decision quality, number and quality of available options, and team and company performance. And when leaders don’t make decisions, there are also costs of doing nothing.
Rapid decision-making happens when the big whys are stronger than the fears that slow us down or stop us.
Curing common fears that keep us stuck
Let’s identify and tackle some of the common fears that keep us stuck along with their cures:
Mistrust. We don’t trust our judgment or that of others. We question the motives of the people on the other side of the negotiation. We don’t believe others have our best interests at heart. The cure: Remind yourself of your abilities by reviewing favorable past decisions. The next decision then builds on that confidence. Remember you are in your role because of your skills. Your boss believes in you and has put you here for a reason. If you are a leader that doesn’t trust your team, consider the reasons why. Have you helped them safely develop their decision-making skills? Have you openly criticized decisions in the past? Do you make it safe for them to ask for help? Do you show up as a safety net or a critic? What can you do right now to show your supporting side?
Being wrong. The need to be right is a powerful motivator. We believe that being wrong makes us vulnerable and damages our credibility. The cure: If the decision is mission-critical, engage others to consult and review before making a final decision. Inviting other people into the boat with us for the difficult decisions increases confidence in a solution. Consider that perfection is not a standard because nobody can achieve it. Being wrong is tuition paid for getting better.
Looking bad. This is a close cousin of being wrong. The primary reason customers don’t buy from a company is that the client doesn’t want to look bad to his bosses or peers. Leaders will freeze in place if they believe that the risk of looking bad is too high. The cure: Use your best decision-making approach, mitigate the risks to a reasonable degree, and consult with bosses or peers before implementing the decision. Assess whether the current atmosphere encourages shaming people for mistakes. If shaming is the default behavior, change it. A rapid decision culture cannot develop in a shaming environment.
Upsetting the boss. Everyone wants to please the boss. In her hands are the keys to our potential within the company. Making the wrong call could make her look bad, we tell ourselves, and doing nothing is the path of least resistance. Except that the boss gave us the problem to manage and the cost of doing nothing is usually too high. Better to be thoughtfully wrong on a decision or frozen in place? The cure: Collect the data, gather input from the team, assess the options, keep the boss informed and engaged, and make the decision. Know in your heart and mind that NOT making the decision will result in more pain than making it.
Imposter syndrome. The fear that we are not competent to hold our position or make the decision and that our weaknesses are displayed for all to see. The cure: Define the problem, collect the data, get input from your team, assess the options, and make the decision. Your boss put you in the role because he believes in you.
Not enough data. There is a saying in quality management—in God we trust, all others bring data. Rapid decision making requires leaders to get comfortable with 60% of the data, enrich it with relevance and purpose, and use the resulting information to make the call. The cure: Take the data and information available, apply critical thinking skills, ask for help if required, and decide. Our ability to synthesize the data into a useable form improves with deliberate practice.
Loss of influence or prestige. A fear that making mistakes will lead to lost power or prestige slows leaders down and saps effectiveness. Such leaders lose credibility and trustworthiness and, shortly after that, influence and prestige. The cure: Most of all, focus on what you can do as a leader to make rapid, effective decisions that add value to the team, company, and customer. We earn any influence or prestige as a direct result of leadership abilities, including decision-making effectiveness.
Takeaway: The best approach to address our decision-making fears is to notice them and use them as catalysts to act. Whether the fear is real or imagined, improving decision-making capabilities forms the core of a leader’s effectiveness. Resources are available in the form of bosses, peers, team members, mentors, coaches, and articles to enhance your skills and confidence. The ability to make rapid, sound decisions differentiates the best leaders from the rest.