In other words, buying a car is a tough decision. If you consider all the factors, it becomes incredibly complex and hard to choose one car over another. My solution is to call my brother-in-law; he loves to read consumer reports. He asks me what I want in a car, and then he provides the top three choices. This process helps but making the final choice is still a stressful experience.
When making a difficult decision, you have a great deal of what Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance. In the beginning, we open our minds to lots of different alternatives, all of which look good in some ways and bad in others. Struggling with several various options creates dissonance because many of the choices are mutually exclusive. Most of us hate cognitive dissonance. As a result, we tend to rationalize our choice, defend our decision, and then find reasons to denigrate alternatives. The most common problem, due to this justification process, is that it may take you a long time to recognize that you made a poor decision. It happens in all aspects of life: at home, at work, raising kids, or even buying cars. Once you decide, you find yourself defending the decision and it’s difficult to accept the fact that this may have been a wrong decision.
In the workplace, decisions can be a building block of a successful career, or they can be the reason for failure. Some people try to escape the possibility of failure by avoiding making difficult decisions, but that is not helpful either. My colleague Jack Zenger and I found that having the ability to make a good decision and be decisive is a critical element of leadership success.
Despite the endless amount of data we can access today, there will never be enough to ensure a decision is correct. Waiting for more data causes people to miss getting ahead of the competition. Sometimes good choices this year become bad choices next year. Learning how to be decisive is an essential skill that will influence your success.
To test the impact of decisiveness, we gathered data on 379 leaders. We had managers, peers, direct reports, and others evaluate each person’s decisiveness.
Each assessor rated a leader on their ability to:
- Make decisions and continually move forward even when there is a lack of clarity.
- Keep decisions moving forward in an environment of uncertainty.
- Balance decisiveness with reflection and critical thinking.
- Make good decisions with a mixture of analysis, wisdom, experience, and judgment.
Based on the average of all evaluators, we calculated a decisiveness index. The graph below shows the results comparing an organizational potential rating with the average decisiveness percentile score. (Potential ratings were made independent of the decisiveness assessments.) Note that the “High Potential groups have the highest rating on decisiveness and the Develops in Place has the lowest. High potentials would be the most likely to be promoted in the near future while those who were designated as “Develop in Place” were good performers but not likely to be promoted.
How to be More DecisiveTo understand what leaders did to become more decisive, we looked at evaluations from over 3,000 assessors on over 1,000 leaders. What we found when we analyzed the data was that being decisive requires four key enabling behaviors. These enabling behaviors help leaders to understand decisions, make decisions, and execute them.
Deep Knowledge and Expertise
Leaders who were effective at being decisive started with a deep knowledge, experience, and insights about the decision to be made. In many cases, the person making the decision involved others because did not have all the needed knowledge and expertise. Insights come from looking at the data, analyzing results and discussions with peers and colleagues. Some leaders were arrogant and assumed that they knew enough to decide on their own without involving others. This behavior often ends in disaster. Without proper knowledge and expertise, the only thing a leader can rely on is luck.
Clear Strategy and Direction
Once a problem is fully understood, a good decision needs the context of the organizational direction and strategy. A person can make a good decision, but if the organization is headed in a different direction, it will quickly become a disaster. Once again, involving others is critical here because often changes in direction may not have been discussed throughout the organization.
No amount of data, analysis, reports, or projections will make the decision for you. All the data comes from looking backward, but decision effectiveness is based on what will happen in the future. Someone is going to have to make a decision, and that person will never be 100% sure it is the correct decision. For the life of that decision, it will be attributed to the person who made the decision, and this requires a willingness to take risks and pure courage. In today’s disruptive environment, decisions need to be made quickly before competitors can gain the lead. Not every decision made will be correct and so another aspect of courage is to identify and correct poor decisions. The natural tendency of those making decisions is to defend them, but taking too long to recognize a poor decision can negatively influence the perception of an individual’s effectiveness.
The final element is possibly the most important. Good decisions that fail to be implemented become bad decisions. For decisions to be implemented, change needs to occur. Implementation requires that a person is willing to take the initiative who can act with speed, conviction, and a sense of urgency. Just because a decision has been made does not mean it will be implemented. A key element with implementing is follow-through.
Our analysis below looked at the impact of improvement of the enabling behaviors. If all four are below average, decisiveness is at the 19thpercentile. Each time one of the behaviors improves to above-average performance decisiveness increases. With all four above-average, decisiveness is at the 82ndpercentile. Identify the one behavior that is least effective for you and make a plan for improvement. Have a goal of becoming above average on all four of the behaviors.
We have created a brief self-assessment that measures your preference for each of the four enabling behaviors. What we know about preference is that people tend to be more skilled in a skill where they have a high preference. After taking the assessment, consider improvement actions in the skill with the lowest preference.