The Art of Making Hard Decisions

Our organization is in the middle of budgeting . . . which often involves making hard decisions. Unfortunately, hard decisions are a part of leadership. There are, however, different kinds of hard decisions. Knowing how to break various types of decision-making down to the crux of the choice can save you a lot of sleepless nights. Some of the types of decisions a leader may have to make include:

1. Operational decisions

These, in many respects, are the easiest type of “hard decisions.” It is making a choice on whether to incorporate some new “thing” into the organzation. It is, “Is there a way for the budget to support adding this position?” Most operational decisions really come down to a yes or no answer based on the organization’s priorities. The difficulty is that you really may need the new position (or whatever the idea is) to achieve your goals. Based on your priorities, you either find a way to make adjustments so it will work or you don’t. These decisions may be hard, but they are also more concrete and tend to be taken less personally than other types of hard decisions.

2. Culture decisions

These are decisions where you are challenged to walk your talk. If you say people are your most important resource, is that reflected in your decision-making? If you want your people to be innovative, do you have a tolerance for mistakes and changing course mid-project? If you want your people to trust you, are you transparent with your goals and expectations? These decisions tend to be more subjective than operational decisions. You may understand the intent of your decisions, but unless you connect the dots for your people they may misinterpret your reasoning based on their perspective. There is not necessarily a right or wrong answer when it comes to cultural decisions, so clarity around your values and cultural goals aids in both decision-making and, if necessary, in defending those decisions.

3. People decisions

People decisions can be the toughest of the hard decisions because they are the most personal. In fact, we sometimes try to turn people decisions into operational or culture decisions because those seem easier to make and justify. These decisions require us to look someone in the eye and share a decision regarding them or their performance that they often don’t want to hear or agree with. A key aspect of making people decisions is to base them on clear expectations or behavior. The more general, “You are just not a fit for this position” is much harder for people to accept than “We cannot tolerate this behavior”. Although a more general statement may feel easier, when it comes to people decisions, clearer is kinder.

Leadership often requires mastering the art of hard decisions . . . and the first step is to define the type of decision before you and then respond accordingly.  How will you decide?

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