Making Tough Calls

Few discussions about leadership survive long without somehow broaching the subject of decision-making. Like the litany of other leadership topics, there is no shortage of expert opinions and approaches on how to make the best decision in any number of situations. So rather than add another how-to, this attacks the topic of difficult decisions from a different angle.

Several years ago Shackleton Group routinely observed the typical check-in-the-box approach to ethics and ethics training that provided the necessary legal cover for an organization but did little to establish a cultural mindset of doing the right thing. What’s more, the training did nothing to connect how doing the right thing could create a culture where not only the letter of the law but more importantly the intent begins to drive behavior. So we developed a different approach to ethics training that doesn’t directly address the rules and regulations of any specific organization, but rather provides a setting in which participants gain a much more global understanding of the concept of ethics and its impact on an organization. Our approach also provides the opportunity to experience aspects of ethics that are unique to the participant’s environment.

With decision-making, we face a similar challenge as with ethics. One more decision making process or checklist will not adequately address the problems that leaders and organizations face in difficult situations. A more effective approach will be one that affects the individual mindset of each leader and in turn the culture of the organization. The real value to the organization comes from helping leaders get better at understanding and addressing the challenges they face when making the tough choice.

All leaders face tough choices. Some leaders face them more frequently than others because of their type of work, or the nature of their personality, or simply because of the circumstances surrounding a decision. Tough choices can be further compounded by a combination of any or all of the above. What’s considered a routine decision by one leader may be agonizing for another, and what may be an easy call one day might dramatically change for the very same leader the next because of a simple shift in circumstances.

In order to address the mindset and organizational culture aspect of this issue, we ask leaders to look at tough choices from three perspectives: Things to Accept, Things to Consider, and Things to Do. While there may be a laundry list of things a leader needs to recognize, consider and do in order to deal with difficult decisions, we are only going to address a few of the more critical ones.

Things To Accept

  • It’s an Obligation: Leaders must recognize that they have a fundamental obligation to deal with and resolve hard decisions. The minute they accept the mantle of leadership, they accept the authority and responsibility for all decisions associated with that position. Once a leader recognizes this irrefutable and inescapable fact then they and their organization will begin to get better at dealing with tough choices.
  • You can’t hope it disappears: The hard choice, challenge, difficulty or issue will not go away or resolve itself. When faced with a diagnosis of cancer, for instance, a patient may choose actions to either fight or mitigate the effects of cancer or to simply ignore the diagnosis. Unfortunately, ignoring the diagnosis will not make cancer disappear. In fact, eventually, the cancer will grow and consume them. Indecision can have the same effect on an organization when leaders choose not to make them simply because they are too hard or they don’t want the responsibility for the outcome. When leaders behave this way it too can consume the organization and paralyze growth, effectiveness, innovation, and morale.
  • It takes moral courage: That’s one reason it’s called a tough choice. It’s not easy doing something that will adversely impact an individual’s career, or negatively impact a team’s workload, or telling the bosses something they don’t want to hear, or something that appears to go against popular opinion, etc. Taking that action into consideration with all of the other factors will oftentimes require a leader to summon the moral courage too, as KarelMontor once said, make the “hard right, rather than the easy wrong” decision.
  • You’ll get better at it: Although there are some types of decisions that might never get easier, learning from hard experiences will make a leader better at making hard choices the next time around. So a final key thing for every leader to recognize is that the more times difficult decisions are faced and the tough choice made, the better and more effective the leader and the organization will get at dealing with them.

Things To Consider

  • What makes it tough?: Leaders must consider what it is about a particular choice that makes it so hard. Leaders also need to understand what it might be about decisions in general that they personally find difficult. Knowing and understanding yourself becomes a critical factor in how and why you make decisions the way you do, and why some decisions are tougher for you than for someone else. In reflecting on how you make decisions, be cautious about spending too much time and energy trying to figure out why a decision that’s tough for you is easy for someone else. That is fraught with far too many variables, and can quickly become counter-productive. It’s much more important to understand what makes a decision tough for you and just deal with that. This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t learn and leverage the experiences of others, just make sure you are not giving those differences more than the appropriate focus at the appropriate time.
  • Know the environment & influencing factors: Leaders have to understand the environment in which the decision is being made, and identify factors that will influence how they make the tough choice. Consider and try to understand the urgency with which the decision must be made, the circumstances surrounding the issue, the culture of the organization, and the expectations of those involved. All of these and more ultimately become influencing factors to varying degrees, whether consciously or subconsciously. Another example to consider, and a final note on the environment, is an additional obligation that leaders have in becoming proficient at navigating the system in which they lead. This involves, in part, knowing the rules and regulations of their industry and their organization. The role of a leader requires that they assume responsibility for more than just their technical subject matter expertise. Once you accept a position of leadership, you must understand the administrative steps and requirements for everything from how to reward and compensate your people, to disciplining and maintaining accountability across your team. Too often, leaders use the excuse that the system is too complex, or the rules too unclear, or they are too busy doing their real job to execute this fundamental responsibility. The unfortunate result in the case of tough choices about people is that the problem becomes someone else’s to deal with and ultimately impacts the entire organization. When there is no formal track record of either excellent or substandard performance, the strong performers don’t get recognized or promoted and the wrong people continue on, reducing the effectiveness and morale of the team, or worse creating a culture of apathy. On the other hand, when leaders are diligent in this regard the organization has the potential to grow stronger and more effective. As Jim Collins suggests by “Getting and keeping the right people on the bus, and getting the wrong people off the bus,” this creates a culture of loyalty, commitment, and success. This can only work if leaders know, understand and act in concert with their organizational environment and system.
  • You’re not the Lone Ranger: Leaders need to become rapidly familiar with the capabilities and resources at their disposal; those that are offered by their organization as a whole, or those they may need to seek out to make the necessary decision. Tough choices are hard enough without compounding them by rejecting (or not knowing about) resources that you could use to make the required decision. Extremely valuable resources include other experienced leaders. First knowing that you can ask for help, and second, knowing when to ask for help can sometimes make all the difference in the outcome of a tough decision. Knowing when to ask for help is key, and it comes with experience and confidence. While acceptable and encouraged when appropriate, asking for help should not become a leader’s default approach to making tough decisions.
  • What’s the impact?: Leaders need to understand who the decision is going to affect and how both individually and organizationally. Impact to things like careers, achieving or falling short of organizational objectives, cost, time, systems, etc. Leaders must know and understand the impact that any course of action they take is going to have, or go find out what the impact of a tough decision is going to be through due diligence. One effective approach to better understanding the impact of a particular decision is to put yourself in the shoes of the affected party to try and see it from their perspective.

Things To Do

  • Don’t Panic: By its very definition, a tough choice implies an increased level of difficulty, dilemma, and stress. When those levels increase so does your level of anxiety. The more your anxiety level increases, the less effective your decision-making ability will be until you settle down and start feeling normal again. The period of time between the onset of anxiety and when you calm down is called your “Recovery Time” (Jacob More: Decision Making Under Stress IMPACT©2013). The key is compressing your recovery time by recognizing that it exists, reducing the stress and anxiety when possible, and never letting it escalate to panic. It’s also important not to create panic in your team. The more confident and controlled you appear as a leader the more confident your team is going to be, and the more effective they can be in supporting you.
  • Clearly Identify the issue: Before you run around doing things just for the sake of taking some action, a good leader will pause, wind the clock, and get clarity on what the challenge is that requires a decision. First and foremost, this will ensure that you address and make a decision on the right question, but it always requires getting yourself clear on what the problem actually is. Leaders that neglect due diligence on clearly defining the problem run the risk of focusing on an ancillary or tentacle issue that may disguise itself as the real problem. When you are all thrust and no vector, it ineffectively and unnecessarily expands your and your team’s patience, resources and ultimately trust. So be precise before you act. Getting clarity upfront will help you gauge the magnitude of the problem you’re facing, or might even reveal that it is not as difficult a decision as initially anticipated.
  • Weigh & Balance: Now that you have identified and considered the issue from some key perspectives, a good leader will weigh and balance all the critical factors before developing or selecting the best course of action. Timing your decision is one of the most impactful elements to consider in sifting through the information. Leaders must ask themselves “Do I need to make this decision right now?” or “When do I really need to make the decision?” Oftentimes we misinterpret decisiveness to mean making rapid decisions. In reality, decisiveness is about knowing how much time you have to make a decision, and using all of that time as effectively as possible to make the best decision you can. John Cleese, in his speech on creativity, suggests that leaders who don’t take the time they are given are simply being lazy by making an immediate decision when one isn’t required simply to get it over with. When weighing all of the information, you are not just determining if a decision is required and what the decision will be, but also determining when the decision needs to be made in order to affect the best outcome.
  • Act: Finally, make the tough choice! Be decisive, be committed and act. DON’T be hesitant and don’t waffle. Be confident in your decision once you’ve made it. A good leader will not be afraid to stand his ground and make his case. Through the course of making many decisions, some will inevitably be challenged. That is to be expected. Also, you will inevitably make the wrong decision on occasion. Don’t let the occasional wrong decision prevent you or slow you in making future decisions.
  • Own it: Once the decision is made, regardless of how many other people were involved in making the decision and in spite of the resistance to it, take sole responsibility for it. No matter how unpopular or controversial it is, the decision is ultimately yours and you cannot publicly or privately lay blame on someone else. Deflect praise to those who deserve it, but own criticism for any fallout.

Too often individuals abandon their responsibility and choose not to act on a tough decision because they don’t want to be saddled with the reputation or the outcome. It becomes too personal. When they do this they are no longer acting in the best interest of the organization or necessarily doing what’s right, but rather doing what’s in their own best interest. The ability and capacity to make tough decisions will undoubtedly drive HOW that decision is made, but in no way relieves you, THE LEADER, of the responsibility to make difficult decisions. Regardless of any personal aversion to dealing with difficult situations, good leaders will recognize that despite all the associated challenges, factors and impacts, they have the responsibility and obligation to act judiciously and decisively by exercising their authority appropriately and making the tough call.

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