Leaders, Stop Avoiding Hard Decisions

by Ron Carucci
Republished from Harvard Business Review, April 13, 2018

Too many leaders avoid making tough calls. In an effort not to upset others or lose status in the eyes of their followers, they concoct sophisticated justifications for putting off difficult decisions, and the delay often does far more damage than whatever fallout they were trying to avoid. In fact, hard decisions often get more complicated when they’re deferred. And as a leader gets more senior, the need to make hard calls only intensifies. In our ten-year longitudinal study of more than 2,700 leaders, 57% percent of newly appointed executives said that decisions were more complicated and difficult than they expected.

In my 30 years working with executives, I’ve heard leaders commonly use three rationalizations for putting off difficult decisions. By understanding the consequences of these excuses, you can work to avoid them.

“I’m being considerate of others.” For some leaders, the thought of estranging those they lead with a difficult call is paralyzing. I’ve heard leaders say things like, “Morale is already low. I hate to add to their stress.” The real issue is that many leaders don’t want to disappoint their people.

In one organization I worked with, an executive was given four months to prepare his department for significant budget cuts that would go into effect when the next fiscal year began on March 1. In November, he decided that ruining people’s holidays with the news would be cruel. When January came, he felt people were already too focused on closing out the year with final reports and the extra work of planning for the new fiscal year. By early February, everyone had completed their planning and had already built budgets that now exceeded the targeted cuts. When people found out about the cuts, they were understandably upset by the excessive rework they now had to do, not to mention disappointed by the loss of funding for the projects they had hoped to take on. And when they found out their boss had known about the cuts for months, they felt deceived and angry.

The emotional turmoil the executive caused — the very thing he had spent four months avoiding — was now much harsher than it would have been had he just told them when he first knew. Worse, the team made poorer decisions with just a few weeks’ notice. Had they used the full four months to plan, they would’ve been able to work through their emotional pain while having more time to think creatively about their options.   

The most significant consequence was that the executive missed an opportunity to help his team build resilience in the face of a tough challenge. Instead of learning to rally together and find creative solutions, they felt demoralized and confused by their leader’s deceit. He had essentially taught them that they shouldn’t talk openly about bad news.

“I’m committed to quality and accuracy.” For leaders who struggle with the ambiguity that often comes with decisions that have long-term implications, the anxiety over being wrong can be consuming. They try to impose certainty by analyzing more data and soliciting more opinions, but the real issue is their fear of looking stupid.

Taking action in the face of incomplete data is an executive’s job. You sometimes won’t know if the decision was “right” until long after it’s made.

The consequence of this common rationalization is that you teach people that they should avoid mistakes at all costs and that “looking right” is more important than “doing right.” Further, if you end up backing yourself into a corner where you have fewer options and have to make a sub-optimal decision anyway, you look more incompetent than had you made the best decision possible with limited data.

As an executive, you should model taking calculated risks and learning from mistakes. While the consequences of any one choice may appear grave, your anxiety is likely distorting the reality. Among the thousands of decisions you and your fellow leaders make in any given week, some of them will not go as hoped. You better serve your people by modeling how to navigate that reality than by trying to convince them it can be avoided.

“I want to be seen as fair.” In a world of headlines about leaders mistreating people with harsh and unfair expectations, and bonuses calculated on employee engagement scores, many leaders fear being seen as uncaring or playing favorites. This has become especially true in a world where everyone gets a “participation trophy” because leaders falsely believe acknowledging differences in performance is the same as showing different levels of respect. Under the guise of fairness, leaders often avoid hard decisions that would separate out stronger performers from average performers, and, even more painfully, they fail to remove poor performers. For example, rather than picking the two best presenters on your team to do most of the talking during your company’s next all-hands meeting, it might seem more “fair” to share that high-visibility task among your entire team — essentially avoiding the decision. Or, you might believe that “it’s only fair” to give someone who clearly can’t do their job another chance. But this only creates a false sense of egalitarianism among your team, and undermines performance.

But failing to address underperformance or to acknowledge the great work of your high performers couldn’t be more unfair or disrespectful. Differentiating levels of performance is a leader’s job. When you avoid decisions that do so, you dilute meritocracy and redefine contribution as merely one’s efforts, regardless of outcome. It’s unfair to the highest performers whose work likely accounts for a larger percentage of the team’s success, and it’s cruel to the lowest performers to allow them to flounder in roles for which they are ill prepared. The base level of respect we owe others as colleagues and fellow human beings isn’t compromised when we are honest about how talent and contributions differ. It’s strengthened.

Purchased reputation is nothing more than an unspoken contract of mutual manipulation. All you do is train people to think they can get their way simply by making you fear the loss of their public approval rating. The hidden, consequence is that you’ve defined how respect is bartered for among your people. Instead of being earned through cooperation and contribution, reputational respect can be bought. Sometimes hard decisions are unfair to some but people need to know you are equitable in how you make them. If the squeaky wheel always gets their way, you’ll gain a reputation of being unfair and weak.

As an executive, how you make hard calls shapes your organization’s decision-making culture over time. These excuses teach people that self-protection and self-interest are legitimate motivations for making difficult choices. Whatever temporary pain you might incur from making a tough call should pale in comparison to the precedent you set that it’s important to put the organization’s success first.

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