Management Success Series Tip #8: Daily Decision Making

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Management is inherently ambiguous.  As a business leader, we make decisions throughout the day on a variety of matters.  Issues arise through email, during a visit to our office or on a phone call, and our decisions impact the business, the people and the customers.  Because of the impact, decision making is a particularly challenging aspect of management, and it is here where the common sense, integrity and humanity of good managers will come to clash.

When we make decisions, particularly those where the stakes are high, we always want the most information we can get our hands on.  For example, an employee asks you if they should go down path A or path B.  Path A is financially the better one, but will impact the customer.  Path B will make the customer happy, but will consume more budget than you expected.  Often path C, which doesn’t adversely impact something, may not exist.  Further, you are frequently in a position where you have 60 or 70% of the data you want, and your experience is needed to fill in the other 30 or 40%.

No one wants to be wrong, so being a decision maker is a big responsibility.  But how many times do you feel you have enough information to make a choice?  The answer is always the same: “I had some information and a little history, but not enough to tell me the decision would be the right one.”  That’s the reality of management; you will not always have as much data as you’d like when making a given decision, and there will always be an element of risk that you were wrong.

I don’t wish to sound too dramatic. I am only trying to highlight something that is simply part of leadership: making decisions and moving on with only partial information.  From my experience, I have found that newer managers especially struggle with this.  They’re used to being right and being able to make sure they were right, which is what got them the manager promotion in the first place.  As managers, though, we rely on the accuracy, data and information provided by others.  When other managers ask me for help, I tell them not to let the situation suffer from excessive deliberation as well as excessive haste.  The golden rule for me is that I need to be reasonably comfortable explaining my decision to another person if they asked me “why?”  Being able to clearly describe your thought process to another person is a test to confirm you have enough of an understanding of the situation to appropriately make the decision.

There are two basic strategies, thankfully, that can help you make decisions.  The most important and obvious strategy is to cross-examine and ask probing questions.  Doing this will help you understand the context and gather as much data as possible.  Be sure to dig through any emotions, details and biases that may be presented to obtain your own interpretation of what the real problem is and what the consequences are.  Probing the employee or colleague who brought you the dilemma in the first place will indicate their level of confidence in the options and reveal if there may in fact be another alternative that was overlooked.  When the decision is one with which you are simply not comfortable, or one where you feel you need a greater understanding of the consequences, ask for feedback from a trusted peer or supervisor.  Get a second opinion. Probing these individuals can give you a different perspective from someone who has likely faced a similar choice.

The second strategy requires that you reconstruct the situation with the person who raised the issue.  When you speak with the individual, reframe the situation back to him or her.  In other words, from our previous example, restate your understanding of the impact on the customer if you choose of path A and ask the individual to affirm your interpretation.  Reframing helps reduce the opportunity for miscommunication and incorrect information.  This activity also allows you to look at the problem from the perspectives of other parties who will be impacted.

So it comes down to this:  sound management requires a combination of courage, judgment and analysis.  Making decisions that impact the business for better or worse can sometimes be daunting.  But in reality, you’re in the leadership position because others had confidence in your abilities to find a healthy balance of these three traits.  Remember to ask questions of others and to seek advice when needed to properly educate yourself on the situation.  Be sure to reframe the situation back to someone so that you can verify your interpretation and the facts.  Decision making is a pivotal part of being a business leader, but it does not have to be overwhelming.

What was the most difficult decision you had to make as a manager?

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