By Cathy Converse
Have you ever been in a meeting where the only decision that was made was to have another meeting? Chances are you have been—I certainly have. And if you’re particularly unlucky, you’ve been in a string of such meetings, where over the course of weeks or months no definitive decisions are made, and consequently no action is taken, and no progress is made.
Whether you are the leader or a participant in such a meeting, a lack of decisiveness can be frustrating at best, and yet leaders often struggle with being decisive. How do we know we’re making the right decision? What additional information could we gather? What if it doesn’t work?
At Collaborative Momentum Consulting (CMC) we believe strongly that courageous leadership is an important solution to problems that hinder our growth as individuals, groups, organizations and communities today. Through this blog, we will be discussing courageous leadership—the characteristics that make up this type of leadership, the benefits to all of us, and the strategies we can use to expand our skill in courageous leadership into all areas of our lives.
One of the ten characteristics of courageous leadership identified through our research is decisiveness. Decisiveness can be defined as making the best decision you can with the information available to you in the time that you have. In a study of behaviors that differentiate CEOs who perform highly from those who do not, decisiveness was one of the most important (Botelho, 2017). The researchers reported that CEOs who made decisions quickly and with conviction, even in ambiguous situations or in the absence of information, were twelve times more likely to be high-performing. Why, then, do so many of us struggle with making decisions?
One reason why it’s challenging to make quick decisions is the abundance of information that is available—or potentially available—to us in the information age. Technology has made it possible to gather data in areas where it was difficult or impossible to do so in the past. Research in general has proliferated and the web seems to put a nearly infinite amount of information at our fingertips—if only we had time to do exhaustive searches. This plethora of information can lead to “information anxiety” and the inability to make decisions quickly. (How many times have you thought, “If I just scroll through one more page of search engine results I’ll find something else that’s really useful”?) Ironically, the ready availability of so much information has made it harder, not easier, to move forward decisively.
Another challenge to decisiveness is the value our society places on perfection. People are praised for being meticulous, exhaustively researching each option, and carefully analyzing every possible outcome. Yet this analysis paralysis can make it very difficult to make decisions and then stick to them. As an example, in preparation for a recent vacation I spent hours researching every single option for a guided tour of the area. I was driven by a desire to find the “perfect” tour for my party—as if that existed and would make a material difference in our enjoyment of the day.
Fear of Failure
Ultimately the biggest barrier to decisiveness is fear: fear that we will make the wrong decision, that as a result we will fail in our endeavor, and that there will be negative consequences (and shame) for us personally. And yet, here’s where the research gets really interesting: In most cases the outcome is less important than the fact that the decision was made. In other words, a wrong decision is better than no decision at all. How can this be? First, consider that not making a decision is, in fact, a decision: you are deciding to take no action. In reality (and to clarify, we’re not talking about patient care here) most wrong decisions can be fixed, but failing to decide and act often can’t. When a decision ends in failure, we can at least learn from our mistakes—we know what doesn’t work. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
Let’s look at an example. You are on a committee tasked with improving NCLEX pass rates, which have fallen precipitously over the past few terms. There is probably a lot of information that you could gather that would inform your decision about what actions to take. You could review standardized test scores, solicit opinions from faculty and students, see what the research says, hire consultants, and solicit assistance from any number of outside organizations. Clearly this information would be helpful to you. But it could take 18 months or longer to compile all available information. Do you wait until you have gathered and analyzed all of this information, then run possible options for action by a comprehensive group of stakeholders? How many more cohorts will graduate before you implement your plan? Would they be better off if you took action sooner, even if the decision isn’t perfect?
Another consequence of indecisiveness is that it can be demoralizing for the team and cause them to lose confidence in their leader (think of the meeting-with-no-decisions scenario mentioned earlier). Employees consider their leaders more credible if they make decisions quickly and then stick to them, and are therefore willing to put more effort into the job. They have seen the chaos that can ensue when indecisiveness causes bottlenecks in one area of the organization that quickly spreads, resulting in the inability to act in other areas.
Exercising the Decisiveness Muscle
If you have trouble making decisions for any of the reasons outlined here or for some other reason, it can be helpful to “practice” making decisions quickly and then sticking to them. Start with low-stakes situations where you know the consequences will be minimal. For example, let’s consider the question, “What should I make for dinner tonight?” You could spend an hour contemplating the likes and dislikes of your family, how long it’s been since you made each of the many possible options, how many ingredients you’ll need to purchase at the grocery store, the nutritional value relative to what you ate last night, etc. Instead, resolve to make a decision in one minutes or less. Chances are everyone will survive the meal and not go to bed hungry. This same approach can be applied to getting dressed in the morning, and then gradually and with more complex issues (and with an appropriate increase in decision-making time). As you begin to trust your decisions, you will build the confidence to be decisiveness when the situation is complex and decisiveness is most needed.
Making Decisions at Work
At work, it can be helpful to consider the following recommendations as you make decisions:
- Seek input from a trusted cadre of colleagues and team members. Be open-minded to their suggestions or opinions. Set a reasonable limit on the time for this exercise, then make a decision and move on.
- Consider the “big picture.” Decisions that don’t account for the long-term implications of a course of action are more likely to be faulty.
- Understand your “data threshold.” This is the amount of information you have before you feel comfortable making a decision. Many experts suggest that a threshold around 65% is ideal; more than 80% means you are spinning your wheels pursuing information that isn’t likely to change the decision you make.
Decisiveness is a fine balance. We are not suggesting that you act rashly to meet an arbitrary deadline. Sometimes the best decision is to gather more information. But it’s also important to remember that any decision is often better than no decision, and that research has demonstrated that decisiveness is one of the most important traits that set high-performing leaders apart from the pack. Weigh your options, then take the leap and fly.
Bothelo, E.L., Powell, K.R., Kincaid, S. and Wang, D. (2017). What Sets Successful CEOs Apart. Harvard Business Review. May-June, 70-77.
Myers, C. (2017, April 28). How to Become a More Decisive Leader. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrismyers/2017/04/28/how-to-become-a-more-decisive-leader/#237d1a397433 Accessed February 2021.
Young, S. (2007, March). Be Decisive. https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2007/03/19/be-decisive/#targetText=Decisiveness%20is%20defined%20as%20being,to%20make%20key%20decisions%20effectively. Accessed February 2021.
This article is one in a series on the components of Courageous Leadership. For more information, visit our Courageous Leadership web page.