Avoiding bad decisions is not the objective; owning them is.
Think of the last really bad decision you made. You may be living through it right now. How did it, or how does it, feel? Not so great, right? Well get used to it!
An Inconvenient Truth
Here’s a very inconvenient truth. As a leader, you will make lots of really bad decisions. It’s inevitable, because none of us is infallible. But as leaders we have many more opportunities to make decisions than anyone else. So, by definition, you will make more bad decisions than anyone else. The answer is not to stop making decisions or to make just good decisions but rather to recognize the bad ones and get out of them as quickly as possible, before you end up stuck on a path that you know is going to lead to even more damage.
“There are innumerable times when I’ve committed myself to a course of action that I soon realized was chosen for all of the right reasons but was fundamentally flawed.”
That’s a lot easier than it sounds, because when we make a decision our natural inclination is to stick with it as we dedicate resources, time, and energy to it. Not to mention the momentum that builds around any decision as we start to advertise it to our teammates, colleagues, friends, and family.
I’m not above this. There are innumerable times when I’ve committed myself to a course of action that I soon realized was chosen for all of the right reasons but was fundamentally flawed.
Taking the Penalty Shot
So, what if I were to tell you that your effectiveness as a leader and your likelihood of success are based as much on undoing bad decisions as they are on making good ones? Not something you want to hear, right? After all, we are measured based on our ability to take action and stand by our actions. But that’s exactly the problem. Action is not, in and of itself, a virtue. In other words, don’t just decide for the sake of deciding.
Measuring your effectiveness by simply measuring your ability to take action is like measuring the success of a soccer goalie by his or her ability to jump to one side of the net or the other without considering where the ball is going. That may sound contrived but studies have actually been done on goalies blocking penalty kicks which show precisely how great the danger of action can be when it’s done purely for the purpose of appearing to be decisive.
When a goalie blocks a penalty shot, there is simply not enough time to react after the ball is kicked, at least not in a way that can predict the trajectory of the ball. The time it takes for the ball to travel from the penalty line to the goal is always less than the time it takes for the goalie to react. But here’s the kicker (sorry!): The vast majority of goalies will jump to one side or the other before the ball is kicked in an attempt to block the shot. In reality, goalies who do this are less likely to block the ball than those who simply stand in the middle of the net! But when asked why they jump the response is that not jumping will be perceived as inaction on their part! So they end up with a behavior that appears to be decisive, even though it is not effective–in fact, it’s worse than that, it’s downright incorrect.
“…fear paralyzes us and keeps us on the path of a bad decision long after we should have taken corrective action.”
The same applies to many of the decisions we make as leaders. But it’s much worse, because you always have time to switch sides if you have the fortitude and courage to say you made a mistake. Sounds much too simple, doesn’t it? So, why don’t we switch sides? Most often because we are fearful of the perception that we are vacillating or being indecisive. That fear paralyzes us and keeps us on the path of a bad decision long after we should have taken corrective action. As a coach to leaders, I often find myself in situations where a decision made by a leader is clearly the wrong way to go, and yet the leader is loath to give up for fear of the way he or she will be perceived.
Getting Back on the Right Path
So, here’s a bulletproof way to correct those bad decisions.
First, own the decision. Be clear with others as to why it was made and the purpose behind it. It’s exceptionally rare that a bad decision is made for bad reasons. What is almost always the case is that the reasons were solid and well thought-out at the time, but they did not take into consideration all of the factors which have emerged since the decision was made. One of the most profound examples of this I’ve encountered is 3M’s philosophy of not penalizing employees who make attempts at new innovations for the right reasons but don’t succeed due to unforeseen complications.
Your objective should always be the health and welfare of your organization. And if you have to call yourself out to achieve that objective, it’s your responsibility to do so. I often turn the tables on my CEOs and ask them what they would do if they were looking on as an objective third party providing counsel on the decision they’re facing. The answer is always pretty clear when they take their own ego out of the equation.
Second, acknowledge that the decision was wrong and don’t feel compelled to right it immediately by making a new one. Rushing into any decision is risky, but rushing from a bad decision immediately into another one is the riskiest behavior of all. I’ve seen organizations and lives ruined because of this sort of impulsive behavior. You’re simply not in a position of clarity just yet. Be patient with yourself and take the time to recover. Once you’re in a place where you have clarity and conviction, you can then take the corrective action needed. That doesn’t mean getting lazy and avoiding making a decision. It simply means that good decisions are not made in times of panic or through purely reactionary emotions. It’s your company, your life, give it the patience it deserves.
Third, accept that this is not your last bad decision, and that you will make more bad decisions than you will good ones. What counts is that over time the good ones outweigh and eclipse the bad ones. This may be the toughest thing of all to accept. But I can tell you firsthand that I have yet to encounter an effective leader who does not understand and accept this point. If you don’t, then you will end up in the category of leaders who are just unable to make decisions because they fear that some of them won’t turn out well. Guess what? Most of them won’t! The key is making sure that the good decisions are great, because that’s what you will ultimately be measured on–the overall success of your decision making ability, not the individual success or failure of any one decision.
You’re a leader, but you’re also human. Bad decisions are unavoidable, but owning, acknowledging, and accepting them is the mark of a great leader–so get used to it!
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.