Trouble Making Decisions? Ask Madeleine

November 21, 2020 Madeleine Homan Blanchard


Dear Madeleine,

I am in a high potential program at a large global company and am being considered for fast track promotion. As part of the program, everyone did a battery of assessments. I have learned all kinds of things about myself, my strengths, my preferences, how others see me, etc. It has been enlightening and has left me a little overwhelmed.

I asked my manager to tell me what she thought the most critical thing was for me to focus on and she told me she thinks I have trouble making decisions.

She is right. I have friends who tell me I am wishy-washy. My partner agrees. I agree. I am a data geek and I like to be able to look at things from all sides before making decisions. The problem is that this approach doesn’t work when time is tight—which is always. It is impossible for me to formulate an opinion when I’m asked to share in meetings. I tend to shut down and say nothing, especially when I am with upper management.

My lack of decision-making skills is jeopardizing my chances to be seen as promotable. And now that I am hyper aware, I seem to getting worse—not better.



Dear Paralyzed,

You are going to be just fine. Assessments are totally overwhelming under any circumstances. When it feels like the results could be used to make decisions about your career advancement, it can feel particularly threatening. But you have a bunch of things going for you:

  1. You were chosen to be part of the high potential program. Don’t forget this. I’m not sure where you got the idea that this one issue is jeopardizing your promotability, unless you have been told this directly. I have to ask you: Is this a story you are telling yourself? If it is, cut it out. Yes—work on this, but for goodness’ sake, take some of the pressure off.
  2. You have a manager who is paying attention and willing to be honest and will help you.
  3. The problem you are having with decisions is much easier to fix than the opposite problem. I know it doesn’t feel that way. But it is much easier to gain confidence in your own thinking than it is to try to be less impulsive and self-assured.

You are actually dealing with two separate issues here. One is you need to speak up more in meetings, the other is you need to get more comfortable with making decisions. They are not the same thing. I will deal with the first issue today and take up the second issue next week. These are big, common issues (and I have been told my blogs are too long).

The fact that upper management wants to see you speak up in meetings means they actually want to know how you think and that you are willing to put yourself out there. No one expects you to solve the problem or have all the answers. They just want to see that you can contribute. You are obviously bright and competent enough to hold down your job and be chosen for a hi-po program, so really, just how far off can you be in your thinking? What are the chances that you are going to say something so devastatingly boneheaded that you will tank your opportunities? I say, low to zero. So before the next meeting, try doing a couple of things:

  • Prepare. Most of us are moving so fast that we come into meetings with almost no idea what the meeting is even about. You cannot afford that luxury right now—and a little preparation will pay off big time. Pay close attention to what the meeting is about, read all of the pre-reading material, have a pre-meeting with anyone who you think knows a lot more than you, and dig around and do a little extra research on any topics you aren’t up to speed with. If you find a recent, interesting, and relevant article, podcast, or infographic, bring it to share with everyone. You will worry that people won’t like it, or will think it isn’t interesting, or will judge you in some way. Don’t. Your peers will envy you and everyone else will be impressed that you prepared and cared enough to bring something that you thought would add value. Almost no one will actually follow up (click the link, read the article, or listen to podcast) anyway. Most people have the attention span of a sand flea and will just remember that you showed up with something of interest.
  • Show up early, breathe deeply, stay calm, and feel your feet on the floor to stay present and grounded. I mean, literally, feel the soles of your feet inside your shoes and how they connect to the floor. It is an old trick to combat stage fright that I read about in Laurence Olivier’s (considered one of the great actors of the 20th century) biography. I have used it ever since, as have hundreds of clients. It is brilliant. It gets you out of your head (a noisy, crowded, scary place) and into your body (a much quieter place). This will provide the additional benefit of helping you access your gut feelings, which can be very wise. Recent research has established that our gut has a direct neuron circuit to the brain, so gut feelings should not be discounted.
  • Greet each person as they come in for the meeting, and remind yourself that each person, regardless of seniority, is just another human being who is paying no attention whatsoever to you. They are thinking about their own problems, what others think of them, what groceries they need to pick up on the way home after the meeting, or their troublesome teenager. Not you. I promise you, this is true.
  • Keep your attention on the matter at hand. Every time your attention wanders over to yourself, swat it back to what’s going on in front of you. Your mind has been trained to be focused on you and you need to untrain it. Paralysis comes from obsessively focusing on yourself. Shift your attention.
  • Take notes in the meetings. Jot down any ideas that float across your mind, and all of your questions. When you are called upon to speak, you can always float a question. When someone asks for your opinion, be ready with: “I think I probably need to know more, but based on everything I have heard so far, I would consider_________.” Or even, “I agree with Marcy, and here’s why.” Remember, no one expects you to be 100% right, or to be the person who comes up with the whole solution or plan. They just want to know what you think right now. This tells them that you are, in fact, thinking, that you were prepared, and that you are paying attention.

This will get you started on the “showing up in meetings” challenge. Next week, we will talk a little more about actual decision making and how you might be able to speed up your process.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!


About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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