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Workplaces are notoriously complex. At some point, you may be confronted with a situation where you’re not sure what to do.

It could be the mix of people, politics, opinions, priorities or something else that is making the situation all the more complicated. Whatever the cause, we need to be able to see through the fog and choose a way forward.

This article deals with the “What” part. The “How” part is the next step, but we need to start somewhere.

Once you know what to do, you can get to work on the how.

If You’re Not Sure What to Do, You Need Clarity

A common situation I find when I’m coaching leaders is that in many cases they know what they need to do, but they need some sort of assurance that it’s the right choice.

Sometimes we need “permission” to do things that are hard because it helps us follow through.

Admittedly it is hard to take action when you are second-guessing your choices. The nagging voice that asks you “Have I made the right call?” is not helpful when you’re trying to make progress.

You Will Never Be Sure, But You Can Be At Peace

Feeling at peaceThe truth is, you’ll never know for sure that something will work or is the right action unless you do it.

Because of this, I find that the most important part is to be comfortable, at peace, at ease (or whatever other words you want to use) with a choice, rather than to be 100 per cent confident of the outcome.

That’s why in this article, I’ll introduce a very simple tool that I use with some leaders (and with myself!) to try to map out the situation and choose a good option.

It won’t give you 100 per cent certainty, but in many situations it can highlight that you really only have one good choice.

This can help you gain the courage and commitment to follow through.

Learn More:  Making Difficult Decisions: Essential Steps for Leaders.

Use the Simple 2 by 2 Matrix to Map Out Your Situation

Yes, that’s right. The tool is incredibly simple, because it’s a 2 x 2 matrix.

Management consultants have been using the humble 2 by 2 matrix for millions of years (slight exaggeration).

Only four quadrants.

Four scenarios to consider. Not fifty or one hundred.

You might be thinking “but the situation is so complex, there are hundreds of outcomes!”

In reality this might be true, but trying to map them all out would be time consuming and exhausting.

Sometimes simplicity is key to avoid “analysis paralysis“. While there may be one hundred options, many of them would not be realistic or appropriate.

Get a piece of paper.

Draw a square.

Now draw two lines down the middle of the square, one horizontal and one vertical.

Now you have a simple matrix.

Now it’s time to put something on the axes.

Let’s Think Binary, About Action and Inaction

Given we only have four quadrants, we can only have two options on each.

On the bottom axis, it starts with an action because this exercise is about doing something.

Either we take action, or we don’t.

Here are some examples:

  • Asking for the pay rise, or not
  • Calling someone out for their bad behaviour, or not
  • Telling your boss you can’t make the deadline, or not
  • Speaking openly about your new idea, or not
  • Having a difficult performance discussion, or not

You get the idea.

Simple is good.

Think of the Relevant Outcomes

The next step when you’re not sure what to do is to consider the potential outcome.

Once again, let’s think of this in binary form – black or white, yes or no. It will happen, or it won’t.

Difficult conversation - 2 women talkingYes, we know that the world is often “grey” rather than black and white, but simplicity is key.

And in many situations, there are only a few outcomes that really matter.

Remember that when thinking of the outcomes, they may not be in your control. You can probably influence them through your actions, but it’s often not up to you to decide the final outcome.

Let’s think of some outcomes, using the previous examples:

  • The pay rise. You get one, or you don’t.
  • Calling out bad behaviour. The badly behaved person leaves the company, or they stay.
  • The deadline. The deadline really mattered, or it could be rescheduled without major issue.
  • The idea. They use your idea, or they don’t.
  • The difficult discussion. The person improves, or they don’t.

Now we have a matrix, with two axes labelled.

Learn More:  All or Nothing Thinking: How Is It Impacting Your Leadership?

An Example: Bad Behaviour

Here is a quick example to demonstrate the concept.

In this example, we’re looking at someone who is showing bad behaviour in the organisation. Everyone is hoping the person leaves, but they might not.

The main choices we’ll use here is to speak up about the bad behaviour, or be silent.

The outcomes of relevance that we’ll use here are that the person stays, or the person leaves.

2 x 2 Matrix Complete - Not sure what to do

If the person leaves, and we were silent, we got lucky. But other people saw that we didn’t say anything, which might not look so good.

If the person leaves and you spoke up, you can have a chance to be a good role model and also to feel good that you made an effort.

Let’s say the person stays. If you were silent, you’ve set a precedent for future bad behaviour to keep happening.

On the other hand, if you spoke up, you have now set a boundary for the future that the person knows to watch out for. You can also feel good that you made an effort to fix the situation.

The most important aspect that this demonstrates is that you are unlikely to receive a positive outcome from staying silent.

Sometimes, this type of thinking can be the nudge that you need to help you take action.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #104: Why Leaders Must Set Boundaries at Work.

When You’re Not Sure What to Do, Try the 2 x 2 Matrix

This simple tool is not going to solve every complex situation you will encounter in leadership.

However, sometimes simplicity helps.

If you’re looking for an extra push to help you take action or clarify your thinking, try it out for yourself.

The simple act of mapping out your binary options and outcomes can bring simplicity and clarity to a complex world.

At the end of the day, sometimes the situation can be made much simpler than we might think, and when it boils down to it, we might only really have *one* good course of action.

We just have to get on with it.

Do you find this useful? Why, or why not? Do you have an example of your own you can share? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!

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