Making good decisions is an important part of being a leader. We want to make the right decisions, and it’s stressful when we aren’t sure. We often think we should have complete data to prove we are right. One thing for sure: we will seldom, if ever, have all the information we need to be sure our decision is the correct one. Here is a guide to improve our confidence when we must make an important one:
Is it time to make this decision?
As female leaders, we often feel we must make a quick decision or appear weak. Making a quick decision that is wrong, however, can damage our reputation and cost time and money. How can we know when it’s time to make a decision?
One question I like to ask is: “Has this cooked enough?” This means I’ve have researched the relevant data (qualitative and quantitative), coordinated with the affected people, and weighed as many risks as I can think of. This gives me confidence that I have as much information as I am likely to get, and that it will be supported by the leaders above me.
Does it make sense?
In the book, Rules & Tools for Leaders, MG Perry M. Smith (Retired) makes a good analogy when talking about a decision-making challenge when he says, “Have we created a thoroughbred race horse, a plodding but sturdy farm horse, or a camel with ten humps? The farm horse may be the best you can get, and you may have to be satisfied with that, but don’t accept the camel.”
The point is we will likely never get the perfect solution to our challenge, but our decision should move us forward. If the result of the decision won’t move us closer to solving our problem, doesn’t improve the situation, or causes other problems, we should put it off and study it longer.
Is it ethical?
A decision should enhance our reputation as an organization. It must be one we can be proud of in terms of integrity, while still moving forward with company goals. A company code of ethics is helpful, but without that, we must weigh decisions against our own ethical standards and values.
As a minimum, we must know it’s legal, follows company policies and regulations, does not violate contracts or have a conflict of interest, and that it won’t be perceived as dishonest by our customers. We must be able to rationally and honestly defend any decision we make.
What else/who else will it affect?
Decisions usually affect more than one team in an organization. Sometimes it may be good for our part of the organization in the short term; however, we also must weigh its effect on the long-term, and on other systems and the rest of the organization. It is important to coordinate with other leaders responsible for those systems ahead of time, before we make a decision.
Do we understand the effects on primary stakeholders, customers, and employees? When a decision has strategic implications for the future, we must also consult the leaders above us. For example, will we need to change the strategic plan, goals, or priorities of the organization, and is that within our authority? It may be the right thing to do, but we must consider how it affects the organization.
Will it pass the media test?
Consider how this decision will look if it were reported to a major newspaper, or national/international media outlet. In today’s environment, anything we decide may be scrutinized by outsiders who didn’t understand the background. Social media has only increased this scrutiny; many companies have experienced negative publicity when decisions were misunderstood or communicated poorly.
Will it help or hurt?
Decisions must be weighed in light of how it affects the safety, health, or well-being of employees, stakeholders and customers. One thing I like to ask is, “How will I feel about this decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now?”
Will it help or hurt morale? If it hurts, then reconsider. Sometimes strategic company decisions will cause organizational changes that hurt morale. In these cases, how we communicate them, both to the individuals effected and the other employees, makes a huge difference. Telling the truth that the impact reflects economic or business circumstances, and not the employee’s performance, goes a long way toward easing the blow.
Is this decision consistent with others I’ve made?
When we make a decision that is inconsistent with others we have made, or with our policies, that doesn’t make it wrong. It does mean we will have to explain our decision as a change in direction. Thinking through this ahead of time helps us be prepared, so that we have the support of both employees and the managers above us.
Will this decision get the result I want?
Isaac Newton is famous for his saying, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In business, as in the rest of life, most every action we take has the potential for consequences we didn’t anticipate. Some of those consequences may be positive, like the “accidental” invention of the Post-It® Note by the guy at 3M Company who brewed up a batch of sticky-but-not-too-sticky adhesive.
Others may be negative, such as implementing a profit-based bonus system that inadvertently motivates managers to reduce spending on maintenance and safety, causing unanticipated accidents or equipment problems. Consider the possible outcomes of any decision, including second and third order effects it may cause. Then decide whether this decision will accomplish your goal.
How and in what way will I communicate the decision?
Thinking through how we will communicate a decision, and to who, helps us prepare for questions and objections ahead of time. Does it need to be announced, or is it better conveyed privately to those affected? This helps us be confident we have sound, logical answers to questions that may come up.
Every question won’t apply to every decision, but getting used to asking them will help us make better ones. We can also explain the ones we make in a way that will convince our leaders and our followers that they are well thought out. You won’t always get it right, but we always get better when we practice.
Susan C. Foster is an Executive Coach, former NASA and Army executive, and a recovering 24/7 workaholic who believes everyone can learn to be a great leader. She is the author of the book, It’s Not Rocket Science: Leading, Inspiring, and Motivating Your Team To Be Their Best. You can reach her at www.susancfoster.com.