Knowing how to make difficult decisions is a challenging part of leadership. Which direction should you choose when somebody will be unhappy with either choice?
When you’re a leader, making difficult decisions is part of the job. Here are some examples that highlight the difficult decisions that you might need to make in your role:
- When do you ask your people to work harder and when do you give them a break?
- Who should be promoted to the new leadership role in your team? Why them and not the others?
- Who gets to go on the training course or the conference, and who misses out?
- What new technology should you invest in to move the organisation forward?
- Should you stand up and say something about an issue? Or should you stay quiet?
- Should you need to fire somebody or have a difficult conversation?
- Do you need to restructure and let someone go because of financial pressure in the organisation? Who is it going to be?
There is never going to be an easy way to make difficult decisions as a leader. Difficult decisions often involve people, money and risk. The stakes are high for somebody, which is why the pressure mounts when you need to make the call.
When you make difficult decisions that affect your team or organisation, you’re unlikely to be able to please everybody. It is very likely that someone is going to be happy and somebody else is going to be upset.
How to Make Difficult Decisions as a Leader
I’ve seen the fallout from quite a few difficult decisions and made hard decisions of my own. In my experience, the best way to make difficult decisions is to follow the steps below.
1. When Making Difficult Decisions, Have a Process
When you need to make a hard choice where the stakes are high, you need to have a process. This also means having a set of criteria you will use to make the decision.
It’s important not to just jump to an answer. If your mind is heading to a decision by instinct, ask yourself why.
Is it possible you might be biased? What are the rules or criteria that you’re using to arrive at a result?
A process helps you make difficult decisions, because you can explain it to other people. “I just thought that was the right way to go” isn’t going to cut it when you’re making a big call.
Having a process doesn’t meant that everyone will be satisfied. But it does mean that you will be able to justify the decision you have made. This is extremely important when you are dealing with large sums of money or the livelihood of people in your team.
A common example that we see often in organisations is in financial decision-making. Often there are documents to be written (such as business cases) and approvals at each step. This means that it is less likely that difficult decisions will be made in an unstructured, ill-considered manner.
What’s your process for this decision? What criteria will you use to make it? And what are the pros (benefits) and cons (negatives) of each option?
Considering these aspects is often a good starting point for making your difficult decision.
Learn More: Why You Need to Understand Your Team Process.
2. Explain Yourself When Making Difficult Decisions
Some leaders don’t feel as if they need to explain themselves, because they’re the boss. Maybe you don’t need to explain yourself at all. Perhaps you can do whatever you want with your team.
However, when you explain how and why you’ve made your decision, it can make a big difference. People are able to see behind the curtain and can attempt to understand the reasons for your choice.
The people who may need to understand your decision will vary depending on the situation. If you’re restructuring or promoting people, it can help to be open with your team about how you made the choice.
If you’re dealing with spending a lot of money, then senior managers will probably want to know how you came to your decision.
Of course, this won’t solve all your problems. People will listen to your reasons and some of them may still be upset, because they might not agree with your logic. Difficult decisions often involve a lot of emotion, not just facts.
The thing that I like leaders to show when making difficult decisions is that they are reasonable, have put significant thought into the choice and that they are displaying integrity. Explaining your decision and the process you followed can help to display these qualities.
When You Don’t Explain, People Will Fill In the Gaps
It can be uncomfortable to explain a difficult decision, especially to people who are upset with your choice. However, when you don’t explain, people will make up their own story about what happened.
The story people create may not match the reality at all. That’s why it can be a good idea to get ahead of rumour and innuendo and provide your side of the story first.
Of course, it’s important not to go too far with this. You are the boss, after all. You don’t need to try to please everyone, so don’t go overboard trying to make everybody happy with the call you’ve made.
3. When Making a Difficult Decision, Consider the Impact
Sometimes when leaders feel pressured to make a decision, they’ll fail to consider the potential impact. Many leaders consider the positive aspects of a decision and the logical reasoning, without thinking more broadly.
If you’re a rational thinker, you’ll probably jump to the “correct” solution.
“The team structure should be like this, because it’s best practice. It’s the only option that makes sense”
However, there are other factors to consider than just the most logical solution. What ripple effect could the decision create?
I was running a workshop once where the topic of being “too logical” came up. Somebody asked me, “How can you possibly be too logical?”.
The answer to this depends on the situation. If you’re dealing with a room full of Engineers and you’re all trying to come up with the perfect design, then being “too logical” might be just fine.
But what happens when your perfect design costs a trillion dollars to build? What happens when your perfect design means one of the teams in your organisation is not needed, and the people in the team will all be laid off?
The point is, there are usually other factors involved. Two of the most common perspectives (other than rational or logical) are the emotional and political dimensions.
Emotional is all about the people impact and the strong emotions that occur as a result. The political element deals with organisational politics and stakeholder influence.
Don’t forget about these elements when you’re assessing the impact of your decision. You can learn more about them by listening to the related podcast episode at the link below.
4. When Making a Difficult Decision, Find a Sounding Board
When you’re making a difficult decision, it can be very useful to have someone to help. This could be a trusted colleague, coach, mentor or your own manager to act as your sounding board.
One of the reasons this is so important is that when making difficult decisions, we can get stuck inside our own head. You might be acting unfairly, being biased, missing something important or otherwise making a skewed judgement call.
When important stakeholders believe a decision has been made unfairly or without thought, there is increased potential for issues.
Use your trusted sounding board to review a decision before you make it. See if your process is sound, and whether the criteria you are using seem appropriate. You can also get a sense of whether you are introducing bias into your decision, even if it’s unintentional.
This is known as unconscious bias, and every leader is susceptible. If you never get another opinion, you’ll find it difficult to see whether you’re falling into the trap.
5. When Making a Difficult Decision, Own It
What I’ve noticed throughout my career is that the best leaders tend to own their decisions. That is, they stand behind them and let people know that they are the one that made the call.
Other leaders may hide behind others or distance themselves from the situation. “It’s what the senior executives wanted” or “It’s not final yet” are some common phrases used.
It’s OK to acknowledge the impact on the people around you, and show empathy. But this doesn’t mean you should reverse the decision or back down.
Taking ownership of a decision means making the call, sticking with it and taking the heat from people who might not like it. Of course, if the situation changes and corrections must be made, so be it.
But it’s often not a good idea to appear tentative or give the appearance that a decision is not final. This may provide people with false hope, or make you appear like a “weak” leader.
Learn More: How a Lack of Confidence Shows In Your Leadership.
When Making Hard Decisions, You Will Never Get it “Correct”
It’s important for leaders to understand, that you won’t get it “right”. Ever. Somebody will almost always be upset after a difficult decision, or have a different point of view.
If this stuff was easy, then you wouldn’t need leaders to make the call.
However, if you have a process, you’ve explained yourself, you’ve considered the impacts and used a sounding board to sense-check your thinking, you’ve probably done a pretty good job.
Don’t expect everybody to like your decision. That’s life, and everyone has a different perspective. Perhaps you made the wrong decision? You may not know until later. But that’s OK, because you can’t predict every eventuality.
Sometimes, making an incorrect decision is better than making none at all. It means you can move forward and make a correction, instead of standing still.