Leaders are required to make decisions and deliver results. When we face a problem, we make decisions, we act, and we succeed, fail, and sometimes learn.
As we reflect on a decision, we often find that the decision and subsequent actions 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 stop us from deciding to decide.
There are supporting forces (big whys) and opposing forces (fears) at work that stimulate a rapid decision or slow it to a crawl. This post addresses the conflicting forces—the fears.
For context, supporting forces—the big Whys—may include things like client demands, performance issues, creating new markets, tackling a merger or acquisition, recruiting the right employees, 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 has a time element that supports a rapid decision bias.
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. For starters, slow decisions can impact customer acquisition and retention, employee recruiting, proposal close rates, deal quality, and competitive position. And when decisions aren’t made, there are also costs of doing nothing.
Rapid decision-making happens when the big whys are stronger than the fears that slow us or stop us. Let’s identify and address some 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 successful 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 support?
Being wrong. The need to be right is a powerful motivator. We believe that being incorrect displays our fallibility 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 to help us with the harder decisions increases confidence in a solution. Consider that perfection, far from being the highest standard, is not a standard at all, because nobody can achieve it. Being wrong is tuition paid for getting better.
Even better, engage those people in a written decision-making process that takes them through the problem definition, current reality, option generation, and acting phase. The more critical the decision, the more valuable a repeatable process is to the team.
Looking bad. 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 embarrassment 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; it can only grow in a safe one.
Upsetting the boss. Everyone wants to please the boss. In their hands are the keys to our potential within the company. Making the wrong call could make them look bad, we tell ourselves, and doing nothing is the comfortable 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. Accept that NOT making the decision results in more pain than doing it.
Imposter syndrome. The fear that we are not competent to hold our position or make the decision and that any weaknesses are exposed 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.
Stakes are too high. The fear that the downside of any decision creates too big a moment for us. The cure: Start by breaking down the problem into smaller choices that don’t bet the company on an outcome. Use A/B tests, piloting, and small-scale experiments to test your assumptions and decisions. These tactics build a safety net for your decisions and provide faster feedback than waiting for the big bang in the middle of your big implementation.
Another useful tool for high-stakes decisions is the David Lee Roth test. During its heyday from the mid-70s to mid-80s, rock group Van Halen designed and delivered incredibly complex tours. The contract and riders for the venues were dozens of pages long. Buried in the contract language was a provision for M&M candies in the dressing rooms. But there was a catch; the brown M&Ms had to be removed. When Roth arrived at the arena for his technical checks, the first thing he looked at was the M&M jar. If the brown ones were absent, he knew the venue staff had read the entire contract. If the brown ones were in the container, it alerted him to check everything. He set up, as Chip and Dan Heath described in their excellent book, Decisive, a tripwire that rapidly alerted him to the care taken with his instructions.
We can do the same thing with our decisions. Set up weekly measures to indicate when a process is going off track. If we hit a tripwire in the implementation, such as three days late on a critical path activity, we pull the team together to discuss and adjust.
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 80% 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 reasoning skills, ask for help as required, and decide. Our ability to synthesize the data into a useable form only improves with deliberate practice.
Loss of influence or prestige. A fear that making mistakes will lead to lost influence or prestige slows leaders down and saps effectiveness. Leaders who let this fear control their actions lose credibility and trustworthiness and, shortly after that, influence and prestige. The cure: Using the remedies above, 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 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 concern 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.