How to make tough decisions

Making a tough decision about your team or your organisation’s workforce can be, well…tough.

NFP leaders and managers are called upon to make tough decisions as a matter of course. But what do you do when the decision is really important, and it’s really not clear what course of action you should take?

Even if you know all the facts, your feelings, thoughts, experience, character and imagination will all come into play.

So how do you balance these to make a good decision?

Harvard Business School professor Joseph L. Badaracco is an expert in making what he calls “grey area” decisions – ones that can sometimes be difficult to clearly assess. On, he suggests that there are five practical questions you should ask yourself that can help you and your team illuminate the “greyest of grey areas”.

Drawn from his research into the experiences of decision-makers over many centuries and cultures, these questions work by demanding a systematic approach to a problem – rather than relying on instinct, intuition or routine:

1) What are the consequences of all my possible options?

To come to the best possible decision – which could impact many people’s lives and livelihoods – you first need to lay out all the possibilities.

Ignore your preconceptions about what you should do, and take the time to consider every possible course of action you could take in response to the problem – and the full consequences of each.

What are the options available to you? And who will these affect, both in the immediate and longer term?

In a practical sense, this process might take the form of a roughly sketched-out decision tree within which you note all possible actions and probable outcomes.

Don’t do this alone – Badaracco says “Gray-area problems are rarely resolved in a flash of intuitive brilliance from one person”. So make sure you’ve got a trusted advisor or two to explore the options with.

You could even assign a “devil’s advocate” role one person in your team, asking them to pinpoint any weaknesses in your thought process.

2) What are my main obligations?

As a manager or leader, it goes without saying that you have a fundamental responsibility to care for and respect your staff, stakeholders and others who are affected by your decisions.

But how do you determine how these duties should affect the decision you make?

By relying on your “moral imagination”, Badaracco suggests. This is a process of stepping out of your own role and putting yourself in the shoes of others in order to identify your own biases and blind spots, and answer questions like: How would you feel if you were them? What kind of treatment and rights would you expect? What would you consider fair?

Then, make an effort to speak to those affected by your decisions – or, if that’s not possible, ask a team member to role-play – to help put yourself in their shoes.

Ultimately, your duty towards the wellbeing of your staff, clients and wider community is more important than your obligation to serve your organisation. Why? Because you’re a human being, and addressing a difficult decision means thinking deeply about the implications of that.

3) What will work in the real world?

After considering the previous two questions, think about practicalities: which possible solution is the most likely to succeed given the real circumstances of the situation?

What are the constraints on you? What about possible roadblocks or impediments to various solutions?

Who are the people with power in the situation, and how hard will they fight for their own interests?

In other words: what will work in the world as it is, not as you wish it could be?

4) Who are we? What are our values

We all work within communities and groups of people. And when making a decision, you need to reflect on what do you, your team, organisation, community and broader culture really value.

As an NFP organisation, what things are most important to prioritise? Equity? Justice? Participation? Impact? Transparency? Urgent needs? Long term viability?

What about as a manager – what values are important in your team relationships? Communication? Accountability? Efficiency? Privacy? Care? Democracy? Achievement?

How can you act in accordance with these values, and what takes precedence if there’s a conflict?

Badaracco gives a simple but powerful way to answer this question if you’re struggling with it:

“Imagine that you are writing a sentence or a chapter in your company’s history. Of all the paths you might choose in this gray area, which would best express what your organization stands for?”

5) What can I live with?

Ultimately, you need to be able to reflect back on your decision and be comfortable with it, beyond whether it meets any criteria you set.

When considering this question, block out all distractions and reflect on what you can really live with. Think about how you would feel explaining the decision and its outcomes to a loved one – would you feel comfortable? Or would you be reluctant to tell them?

Finally, try writing down your decision – and the reasoning behind it – to help you gain clarity.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to make the tough decisions. But keeping in mind these five simple questions and answering each one systematically will hopefully help you to get to the right outcome next time the answer doesn’t come easily.

Do you have a process for making tough decisions? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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