One of the most frequent and significant things a leader is responsible for is taking decisions.
Many of them will be easy, routine and of fairly trivial. Some, on the other hand, will be of huge significance, and will demand a lot of thought and attention.
Then there are the dangerous ones.
These are the ones that seem straightforward, but have surprising or unanticipated ramifications, and may consequently not be given the attention and thought they really deserve. Simple examples of this group might include:
1. Who should I ask to take on this piece of work?
2. Should I agree to this training course request?
3. Should I let this person take leave for a family event?
Get the first one wrong, and you can overload an already busy key player, disengaging them and maybe even causing them to resign. Alternatively, you may miss the opportunity to develop a keen team member who wants to learn by giving the job to someone more experienced. They could then be demoralised and demotivated and think you don’t trust them. You could even manage to make both mistakes simultaneously.
Get the second one wrong and someone might withdraw their extra effort, thinking you don’t deserve their best work. They might feel you don’t want to develop them and start scouring the job pages. Agree to the course, though, and you could make others feel that the one going on the course is your ‘favourite’.
The third one is tough too. Say yes and you run the risk of overloading their colleagues who will have to cover for them. Say no, and the person may feel unsupported and less inclined to go the extra mile.
Doing what’s right
As you can see, there often isn’t a perfect answer. My grandad used to say ‘there’s no such thing as problem solving, only problem swapping’. I didn’t really get it at the time, but I do now.
As a leader, whatever you decide will ultimately have pros and cons, winners and losers, upsides and downsides.
Your first job when making decisions is to identify as many of the possible implications as you can before you take the decision, even if that only means thinking for a few seconds. You need to balance the plus and minus factors, and take the decision that will bring the best outcome for the greater good. You need to consider all the stakeholders in the decision in a calm and rational way.
Another of my grandad’s sayings was ‘when in doubt, do the right thing’. This one helps me a lot in such situations. Whatever the pressure on me to choose one way or another, I try to take the time to think about the right thing to do for the greater good. It often makes things clearer and separates the wood from the trees.
Your second job is to make sure you consider the human implications as well as the material or financial ones. It’s tempting, especially under time pressure, to think about something at a surface level.
For instance, you could make our second example decision ‘Should I agree to this training course request?’ simply on the basis of available budget or whether you think the course is too expensive. But if you fail to take into account what lies behind the question, or how the person will react to the decision, you might get an unpleasant surprise.
The same applies to our third example, which is highly charged and might leave the person in a difficult position when they go home!
That doesn’t mean you should say yes for an easy life or just to make yourself popular, but it does mean you should take all the influencing factors into account in a balanced way before you make your decision.
So your third and final job here is to communicate your decisions intelligently. In a rush, it’s easy just to make a decision, announce it and move on. This could be a mistake.
You need people to understand why you made that choice – and decisions are always a choice – so that they can find a way to accept it and make peace with it.
That’s particularly true if it isn’t the decision they wanted. People are emotional creatures and won’t just accept it and carry on. It will resonate and be interpreted. It will be talked about at lunch. It’s human nature to draw more negative conclusions than positive, and you could set rumours flying or damage your ability to achieve high performance with your team without even realising it.
If you don’t help people understand why, you’ll reap the consequences in lowered morale, loss of commitment and disengagement.
Decisions. Tricky. Vexed. Vital.
Think it through.
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