When you have to make a tough decision: 3 tips to help steer you

As a manager, you are faced with some tough decisions. Deciding on compensation, promotions, assignments, hiring, firing, and budget cuts (my least favorite) are all part of reality as a manager. Most managers try and find the most fair decision based on some criteria.

Determining what is fair maybe “should” be obvious but, oftentimes, decisions can get caught in a web of ambiguity. There is no black and white…only gray. What may benefit you, may not benefit your team. What might be best for the organization can hurt someone on your team.

There are many models and frameworks that can help you make a decision. Typical frameworks direct you to frame the problem, gather information, identify alternatives, collect evidence, weigh the evidence and choose the best solution. This sounds good as a process but determining “best” can be difficult to achieve as our definition will vary among all of us. It is also difficult to prevent our bias from creeping in when identifying solutions and choosing the right one.

In some circumstances, there may not be a “right” one. “Right” is in the eye of the beholder especially if there is a decision for the greater good that may impact a single person negatively. So, what can a manager do in these circumstances?

When I look to make a tough decision, I compare benefits and challenges. I think through risks and consequences. I solicit others’ opinions, if appropriate, to help me think through the implications of the decision as completely as I can. I also believe in transparency as much as possible. If people can voice their opinion in a decision, they will feel better about it even if the decision doesn’t go their way.

One time I had the responsibility to decide who on the team I had to cut. We were given a directive to trim staff and I had to decide whose position I would eliminate and how the work would either be absorbed, paused or stopped. Ugh. The worst possible decision a manager has to make.

In hindsight, I wish leadership would have been more transparent into the financial situation and enrolled the managers in HOW we could cut. Even though this was not done, I weighed by entire budget and looked at vendors, external programs and other areas to trim. I bundled together enough savings through other areas to avoid cutting my small team. Letting people go should be the absolute last resort a company should look to save money (in my opinion). Unfortunately, in tough financial times, this is the only way to go.

Decision-making can be complex to break down. I could list many factors here to keep in mind but the following three actions have helped me the most in making good decisions.

  1. Write it down. Documenting thoughts can be helpful in making a decision. I find I struggle the most when I just try to sort everything out in my head. Whether you are an ole Benjamin Franklin’er where you list two columns labeled pros and cons or whether you follow a more complex model, put it on paper or type it on your screen. This helps you get out of you head. Seeing something written down can spark all kinds of clarity.
  2. Find the middle. Some decisions are difficult because there is no win-win. Of course, I always look for the win-win, if that is achievable, but when it is not, I look for a compromise or what might be in the middle. I have read some leaders who think no one “wins” in a compromise because no party gets what they really want. I don’t think it is a win for anyone if someone gets all of what they want and someone gets zero. To balance fairness, I think it can be more effective if we can come up with a compromise that meets some needs of all parties. Finding compromise can take creativity. This can take more time, take more convincing, and take more influencing ability on your part. I have always found that the middle is more effective in a complex situation.
  3. Know your “why”. Thinking about communicating and influencing, it is important to know why your decision is the best one for this time, this organization and this circumstance. Sometimes a decision made at a different time or in a different group would not be the right one. Knowing your “why” will help you defend the decision and get others behind you.

There are many factors that can go into making an effective decision. Documenting, being creative, seeking middle ground and having a strong rationale behind your decision will help you gain confidence and demonstrate leadership. Some decisions are straightforward but others can be complicated and challenging to make.

My last piece of advice on this is once you make the decision, do not second guess yourself. Don’t keep re-visiting the decision. Know your “why”, write it down and share it with others. Stand firm. Second-guessing only leads to stress and can make you appear less confident, which will make others question the decision. And, sometimes, managers get it wrong. We are human after all. That’s okay. Learn the lessons and apply them to the next decision.

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