by David Maxfield, HBR, 4/19/18.
Every leader has to make tough decisions that have consequences for their organizations, their reputation, and their career. The first step to making these decisions is understanding what makes them so hard. Alexander George, who studied presidential decision-making, pointed to two features:
- Uncertainty: Presidents never have the time or resources to fully understand all of the implications their decisions will have.
- “Value Complexity”: This is George’s term to explain that even the “best” decisions will harm some people and undermine values leaders would prefer to support.
The decisions that senior leaders, middle managers, frontline employees, and parents have to make often have the same features. Uncertainty and value complexity cause us to dither, delay, and defer, when we need to act.
What steps can leaders take to deal with these factors when making decisions?
Our initial reactions to uncertainty often get us deeper into trouble. Watch out for the following four pitfalls.
- Avoidance. It often feels like problems sneak up on us when, in reality, we’ve failed to recognize the emerging issue. Instead of dealing with problems when they begin to simmer, we avoid them — and even dismiss them — until they are at a full boil. For example, perhaps your plants have been running at near capacity for a while and there have been occasional hiccups in your supply chain. Instead of addressing these issues, you accept them as normal. Then, “suddenly,” you’re unable to fill orders.
- Fixation. When a problem presents itself, adrenaline floods our body and we often fixate on the immediate threat. In this fight or flight mode, we’re not able to think strategically. But focusing exclusively on the obvious short-term threat often means you miss the broader context and longer-term ramifications.
- Over-simplification. The fight-or-flight instinct also causes us to oversimplify the situation. We divide the world into “friends” and “foes” and see our options as “win” or “lose” or “option A” or “option B.” Making a successful decision often requires transcending simplifications and discovering new ways to solve the problem.
- Isolation. At first, we may think that, if we contain the problem, it’ll be easier to solve. For example, it may feel safer to hide the problem from your boss, peers, and customers while you figure out what to do. But as a result, you may wait too long before sounding the alarm. And, by then, you’re in too deep.
To avoid these pitfalls — or to get out of them once you’ve fallen into them — it’s best to take incremental steps forward without committing to a decision too quickly. Below are five things you can do to reduce uncertainty as you evaluate your options.