Make up your mind

Indecision doesn’t just waste time — it can seriously damage a leader’s credibility and reputation. Here’s what you need to know to step up your decision-making skills and start making tough calls fast.

Brenda Gefucia had a problem. The accountant and vice-president of consulting and coaching solutions at Toronto’s Forrest & Co. had a direct report who needed to make a decision about letting an unsatisfactory employee go and he was putting it off. The delay wasn’t just causing Gefucia to question his leadership skills — his entire team was becoming more impatient. “Other people were forced to take on the extra workload and resentment built up,” she says. Gefucia eventually stepped in to insist the director make the call, but it was too late: there was an imprint on his reputation and it was clear he needed coaching.

Indecisiveness is arguably the worst quality a leader can possess. “You can lose credibility with just about everyone,” says Gefucia, from your direct reports and peers to your own manager. In fact, one 2014 Ketchum survey of more than 6,500 employees found that of the traits that help a leader build credibility, decisive action is among the top three. Beyond affecting a manager’s reputation, indecision wastes an incredible amount of time and energy. “The worst part is that things just don’t get done,” says Gefucia. A manager’s team will also feel the effects: a 2012 study conducted by researchers from South Africa’s Central University of Technology showed that “a manager’s indecisiveness can lead to job stress, apprehension, procrastination and uncertainty.” And when it comes to moving up the corporate ladder, putting off decisions (or avoiding them altogether) can be the kiss of death. Nick Tasler, an organizational psychologist and CEO of Decision Pulse in Minneapolis, says this can lead executives to think you’re not ready for more responsibility or, even worse, that you’re just not cut out for the job. “Decisive leaders are simply better at getting things done.”

The good news is that there are some fairly simple steps you can take to train yourself to become a more decisive leader. Here are the top tips and strategies recommended by the pros.

Ditch distractions and get focused. Before you can get down to work, make sure you’ve given yourself the time and space you need to focus. Loren Francis, an accountant who’s a stewardship counsellor and principal at HighView Financial Group in Toronto, says prioritizing is key. She recommends planning out your day (or your week, depending on how much time you have to make the decision) based on your deadlines. “Get away from the computer, go into a room on your own and work through it,” she says.

Then take a moment to clarify exactly what it is you’re deciding. Making a decision is actually less about the thing that you choose to do and more about excluding the other paths you could have taken, Tasler says. He points out that it’s helpful to keep the definition of the word “decide” in mind: its Latin root, cide, means “cut” or “kill.” So to decide actually means to cut off all possibilities but one. “Making a list is not a decision; neither is creating a plan,” he says. You have to be clear about what it is that you’re not doing.

Identify your nonnegotiables. When it comes to making an important business decision, our first instinct is usually to gather loads of data and information. While it’s important to be up to speed on all the options, information overload can lead us back to where we started. “People often can’t come to a decision because they’ve run themselves in circles trying to weigh 500 variables,” says Tasler. On the other hand, procrastinating and avoiding the research altogether can quickly backfire: making an arbitrary choice won’t work out if you’re asked how you arrived at your decision. You need to understand your choices ahead of time rather than ending up in a position where you’re forced to choose in the moment.

The next step Tasler recommends taking is to identify the nonnegotiable terms: what are the two or three key things you’re looking for in a solution? What criteria do you have to get right? From there, you can start to assess the options in front of you and figure out which ones best align with those terms.

Finally, when weighing your options and assessing potential consequences, don’t doubt the power of intuition, says Gefucia. “Intuition is built on skills, knowledge, experience and the logic that one possesses,” she says.

Don’t be afraid to get a second (and third) opinion. As you’re examining your options, it’s often important to have your team weigh in, says Francis. Asking colleagues for their two cents gives them a voice and gives you a fresh take. “Everyone may not be in total agreement, but if there’s consensus, you can move forward and be more comfortable with your decision,” she says.

Asking an outsider, on the other hand, is just as crucial. One proven method to achieve more rational and logical decisions, Tasler says, is to get a new frame of reference. The easiest way to do that is to simply ask someone who doesn’t have a stake in the decision — someone in a different department or someone you don’t work with at all. Check your thinking with someone you trust who can look at the situation and your take from a different point of view. “They’ll see things you can’t because they aren’t as close to the situation,” he says.

On a super-tight deadline? Pretend someone else came to you with this decision and consider what advice you would give to him or her. You’ll also want to think about the stakeholders involved in your decision (your team, clients) and consider how they would feel when weighing the options, says Francis.

Tap into your confidence and get it done. Coming to the end of your decision-making process can be daunting — this is where even the most confident leaders question themselves. That’s why it’s important to put aside your fear and claim ownership of your decision. You’re never going to have all the facts or a guaranteed solution, says Tasler. “You simply have to remind yourself that you are a leader and it is your job to say, ‘We’re going this way and not that way.’”

Francis agrees. “Once you’ve analyzed the situation and decided the best course of action, stick with it. If you’re going to stand for something, stand for it,” she says.

But what if you make the wrong decision? You’ve taken in the info, you focused, you made a choice and it turns out it wasn’t the right way to go. “First of all, own it,” says Francis. For people to be able to trust you, they have to understand that when you’re wrong, you’re going to admit it, accept it, learn from it and move forward. “Failure in business,” she adds, “is what ends up making success happen in the future.”