We’ve all been there. The situation is unexpectedly complex and risky, none of the options look good, and the team is looking at me with big, deer-in-the-headlight eyes while the boss makes it clear that only the Right Decision will be acceptable. I’d be lying if I said my palms don’t start to get sweaty just thinking about it. Is it fun? No, it is not. But it is the essence of leadership. Being able to make the best decision using all the available information is what makes a leader great. Being able to make that decision while enlisting full buy-in from all stakeholders is what makes a leader unforgettable. Here are some tips for making tough decisions in a way that you and everyone looking at you can feel good about.
Take a deep breath. When our brains are faced with unwelcome information, our bodies jump straight to panic. Once the adrenalin takes over, it will be that much harder to make rational decisions. Taking deep breaths will help to counteract these physical panic responses, as well as delivering lots of oxygen to the brain. Because deep breathing is quiet and doesn’t create much of an impression on other people, it’s a good choice when tough news comes in meetings or on the phone.
Get the help you need. Some decisions can be made using only the information already in your head. Most, however, especially the difficult ones, are going to be more wisely made with a broader set of data. Spend some time gathering the information you need and reviewing it for high-level impressions. Are there patterns it might be useful to understand? Trends that might help you choose next steps? Don’t forget your team and your peers as information resources in their own right. It’s not weak to ask for help or tap into someone else’s skillset when it helps you do your job.
Don’t hide. It feels very natural to withdraw and isolate in the face of difficulty. Leadership is the art of encountering difficulty without having to duck off stage to deal with it. Your team and your boss need to know that you are competent to tackle this challenge effectively. Be as transparent as you can, and while you don’t want to sob openly in front of your team, it’s okay to say “This is a complicated problem and it’ll take some creativity and care to solve it.” Seeing a leader confront problems head-on gives people confidence to be equally bold in supporting the solution.
Get real. As you evaluate your options, be as realistic as you can about the consequences of each one. Too much optimism is just as dangerous as too much catastrophizing. Pay attention to both the intended and the unintended consequences. The intended consequences are the ones that will solve the problem at hand; the unintended ones may create new problems that need to be prevented or addressed. A decision may not have a solution elegant enough to address all concerns without negative impact anywhere else. Leadership demands that we accept this truth and prioritize carefully so that the chosen solution is the one that does the most good while doing the least harm.
Own the outcome. A strong leader involves other people in decision-making but does not blame them when it goes wrong. Collaborating to find solutions is a great way to bring together the widest possible range of options. Responsibility for the choice and its results, however, rest on the shoulders of the leader. When a choice has been made and finalized, the leader must take ownership of it. This allows other team members to feel safe offering suggestions and feedback, even if the results are not what was intended or hoped for. One caveat to this: if a solution proves to have better results than hoped for, a leader is well-advised to give credit to any members of the team who contributed.
In the professional world, every decision is a little different. With these guidelines in mind, take your leadership skills to the next level by learning to embrace tough choices with the same calm, clear vision that you apply to the ones that aren’t so difficult. In this way, you can lead your team and your initiatives through turbulent waters with consistency, courage and grace.