Procrastination can be a major issue when it comes to making decisions in the workplace. As Friday approaches, “We’ll tackle it next week” becomes a common catch-cry.
Some leaders who are conflict-averse will refuse to make a decision at all. Depending on the decision, they can have the effect of causing disagreement or unhappiness within a team.
It is easy to fall into this trap, because some decisions don’t have an obvious answer. Should we do it this way or that way?
Often, it doesn’t matter exactly what the chosen option is – it only matters that a decision is made at all.
When is it a problem not to make a decision?
As leaders, you need to make decisions all the time. When the stakes are low (what shall we have for lunch?) the decision happens quickly, because an incorrect decision isn’t going to be a big issue.
For larger or more complex decisions, the process can drag on for days, weeks or even months. This is fine when you are doing work to come to a decision. For example, you may be writing a large business case so that a decision can be made involving millions of dollars. Fine – you don’t want to make that decision on a whim.
But when you find less complex decisions taking you a long time, this can be a major issue for you, your team and the people around you.
What actually happens when you don’t make a decision
Failure to make a decision can be one of the most disruptive things for a workplace. It may seem as if the impact is not significant at first, but let’s look at what happens when decisions aren’t made.
1. People aren’t able to move on
When a decision isn’t made, people continue to think about it. They continue to hope that an outcome will be reached, so they continue to wait. And wait.
What this is really doing is stopping people from moving on, and moving forward. Instead of working out a new approach to tackle the problem at hand, people are waiting to see whether a decision will happen. While they are waiting, they aren’t looking at alternative ways to tackle the problem.
Before you know it, several weeks or months has been wasted and nothing has happened.
2. Your reputation suffers
If you sit on a decision for a long period, whether it be complex or otherwise, it’s going to hit your reputation. You will be seen as hoping that the problem goes away, or even be seen as obstructive.
Your intention may not be to disrupt anybody or stop people from moving forward, but that is what you are doing. Eventually, people will view you as uncooperative, ineffective or unhelpful and people will start to avoid you, rather than choose to rely on you for something to be done.
3. People make the decision themselves
One of the worst outcomes happens when people start to go around you instead of working with you. Since you have not made a decision, if people care enough about the issue they will solve the problem themselves.
In individual instances this may not be too serious. However, when this becomes the norm, you could be in trouble because you have inadvertently created a new way of working which doesn’t involve you. In the future, if you want to implement some sort of change or improvement, you may struggle because people no longer rely on you, and you are not part of the process.
If you find making decisions difficult, it’s important to look at the source of the difficulty. Is the decision exceedingly complex? Or does it involve an outcome that you’re avoiding?
To make a complex decision, take a structured approach
A complex decision may need a degree of structure to handle. This is why business cases, tender responses and other documents exist – to bring structure and standardise a complex decision-making process. They also utilise a scoring system, allowing you to rate options and come to a final decision, based on a set of criteria.
After using these tools, people know what to expect and in the future, they’ll recognise templates, making the process easier to execute.
If a decision is difficult but doesn’t occur very often, it’s probably not worth creating templates or documents, as they won’t be used often. For these decisions, a simple pros and cons list (or “Force Field analysis” if you prefer), will help you to weigh up both sides to make a decision.
Trying to avoid upsetting anybody
Some decisions will involve people being happy, while others may be unhappy about the outcome. There are instances where it is tempting not to make a decision at all because you know it may cause tension.
Unfortunately, when you don’t make a decision at all you will upset people anyway. People who are relying on a decision to be made will be annoyed. The people who you would have upset may be satisfied temporarily. But it is worth noting that without making decisions, you will find it difficult to make progress.
“Who should be promoted? Tom or Jane?”
This is a hard decision. You can’t promote both people, so who do you choose? Choose Tom, and Jane will be upset. Choose Jane and Tom will no doubt be annoyed. Sometimes, leaders choose nobody.
In this case, both Tom and Jane will be annoyed, because they wanted the promotion. Since neither of them actually “lost”, there is a chance they will tolerate this for a while. What you will have is two employees who are at least mildly disgruntled.
As a leader, you will lose the respect of your team in this way. Many people would rather have any decision (even if it means losing out) than to have no change whatsoever. If you are happy with mediocrity and you think your team will be too, then feel free to avoid making hard decisions like with Tom and Jane.
When have you had to make a tough decision? How did you go about it and what was the result? I’d love to hear about it!