When You Don’t Know What To Do

Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions. –Mark Twain (1835-1910)

You typically know the right thing to do.  At most decision points, what’s needed is discipline or the courage to act.  But every once in a while you arrive at a decision point when all your choices have the potential to backfire. When every option has serious repercussions. What do you do?

Add time pressure, an overbearing boss, or a zero-defects company culture to the mix. Now it feels like swimming in a 10 foot-deep pool of half-dried cement. These are the moments that cry out for leadership—your leadership.

Dilemma: a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.

How do you swim through a pool of half-dry cement? How do you make a decision when faced with a dilemma?

It can be immensely helpful to have a framework—a way of thinking—to help you move forward. Here is one approach:

1. What is the issue, really? First, clarify the issue. In the messy reality of a difficult decision, less pertinent issues may mask the main issue. If there are multiple issues, separate them; lay them out so that you can see what is going on and clarify what the crux of the matter is. I am a visual learner, so it helps me to visually depict the situation on paper. You may prefer to make lists in a spreadsheet or to visualize it in your mind’s eye.

Clarifying the issue also helps to identify who on your team to get involved.

2. Activate the team! You may have to go it alone, either because of the nature of the dilemma or because of time sensitivity. If you have time and it is appropriate to get others involved, do it. Call your team in and get their take on things (see #’s 3-5 below). Getting them involved will give you new perspectives, will cause them to be more vested in the decision, and will develop their own leader judgment—setting the conditions for them to be more effective leaders.

You can also talk it through with a mentor or other trusted person. Hearing yourself explain the dilemma to an outside, dispassionate leader often reframes the situation; and bringing in a mentor can help make sure you aren’t missing something important. And if there is no time or you feel the nature of the dilemma requires total discretion, then talk it through with yourself!

3. Find out as much as you can. Two maxims to remember: “First reports are always wrong” (or, at best, incomplete), and “there are always two sides to every story.” So, suspend judgment and learn as much as you can. Physically go to the “scene” and talk to the key players right away. If the problem is related to a specific person, talk directly with him or her and hear it from the “horse’s mouth” rather than through someone else.

Trust: Your default should be in support of your employees until you gather all the information. You have the opportunity to engender trust by believing in your people, even when everything initially seems to point against them. If you believe the initial negative report only to find out later that your employee was in the right, you will never recover the lost trust.

4. What are your choices? What can you do? You’ve clarified the issue and gotten as much input as possible. Now it’s time to lay out all your possible choices and test them. Play them out in your mind and think through the potential consequences of each choice. Can you live with the worst-case scenario? What are the pros and cons and how do they fit in with your personal beliefs, regulations, the norms of the organization, and the norms and values of the larger profession?

And, my favorite question to ask yourself: What do I want to accomplish or create long-term? Clarity on this question will affect the way you act in the here and now. Think about the impact your decision will have, both on individual employees and the organization in general. Your actions, especially when the pressure is on you, will speak loudly. You are making history and the story will be told and retold by your employees. Make sure that the history you make is aligned with the vision you have for the organization.

5. Decide, execute and evaluate. Given the information that you have available, make the best decision you can and move forward with confidence. Execute! When appropriate (which is most of the time) explain to your team how you came to your decision. Do not assume that they know what is going on in your head.

Once you take action, continue to assess the situation and take in additional information. If the facts and circumstances change, don’t stay locked into a decision that is no longer valid. Be big enough to change your decision if the circumstances warrant.

And if things go horribly wrong, which you know can happen in a true dilemma, be humble. Activate your team, find out as much as you can, trust your people, and press forward.

Equipped with a framework like this, you may discover that the morass of cement feels more like water, and moving forward becomes easier. As you respond to the cry for leadership in these moments, you will hone your judgment and gain the wisdom that comes from experience.

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