Trouble Making Decisions? (Part Two) Ask Madeleine


Today’s blog covers the promised Part Two from last week’s blog post. If you missed it and want to see the whole letter and the context, click here.

Here’s the part of the letter, signed Paralyzed, that I am addressing today:

“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.”

Dear Paralyzed (Part Two),

There is a vast and constantly growing body of research and scholarship on the art and science of decision making. Entire classes and books are devoted to it. I’ve tried to boil it all down, but you can be 100% certain that I have left something out. My aim is not to review every possibility but to offer useful advice, tailored to where you are in your development (early career, high potential, being considered for promotion).

Here are some thoughts:

It is a personality trait—and you are getting a core need met: Folks with a very specific personality type are more attached to accuracy than the rest of us. As a self-described “data geek,” you may fit this profile—which means you may have a need to be right. The more complex the decision and the less clear the alternatives, the more your need to be right will hamstring you.

If you think this might be the case, you will have to get that need met in other ways and detach it from decisions that have to be made quickly. You must literally practice moving ahead even though you might be not quite right, or even wrong. How on earth to do this?

Try making some low-risk decisions without enough data, to build your tolerance. Get used to the discomfort. It will never go away because the decisions only get bigger with the jobs. Here is the silver lining: although you are aware of the drawbacks of being a poor decision maker, the opposite problem—making decisions without sufficient thought or information—can cause just as much damage, although it often is seen as a strength and corrected way too late.

It’s a habit: Consider that your wishy-washiness is less a character trait and more of a habit. Habits are notoriously hard to break, but even good habits can outlive their usefulness. Try to notice when you are defaulting to habitual waffling and choose another tactic. When the risk is low, just roll with your first gut response and see how it goes. If you think this might be your problem, learn more about habits and how to break them, from Charles Duhigg, here.

You don’t have a system to make good decisions: Oh dear, where to start? There is so much interesting stuff on this topic, and boy, did I go down the rabbit hole. To save myself (and you) from going completely off the rails with this, I went to one of my all-time favorite resources: The Owner’s Manual for the Brain by Pierce J. Howard. I hate to recommend 1000-page books, but, since you are a geek, it might be your cup of tea. I was introduced to it by one of our company’s resident geniuses, VP of Applied Learning Dr. Vicki Halsey—and as a social neuroscience devotee it is a go-to resource for me. Chapter 26, “Creating Leverage: Brain-Based Decision Making” is worth the price of the book (and the weight) all on its own. In his Concern Analysis Flowchart (Fig. 26.3, pg. 704), Dr. Howard recommends a few methods to get you started:

  • Mind Mapping: I am a huge fan of this technique because my thinking style is so wildly random that it Is almost impossible for me to think anything through using linear reasoning. Using a mind map helps you get all relevant thoughts on a piece of paper at once and then put them in order. This way, you can tease out the most important details and the relative importance of everything else. It also helps you make connections you otherwise might not have seen.
  • Pareto Analysis: The Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) is the idea that by doing 20% of the work you can generate 80% of the benefit of doing the entire job. Using it to analyze your items when making a decision might help you quickly discard the less relevant items. The mindtools website has massive amounts of material on decision making, among other useful topics, that you can data-geek out on at your leisure.
  • Fishbone Analysis: This method originated with the Total Quality Management method. It is also known as the cause-and-effect diagram or the Ishikawa method. This tool helps organize your thinking around the root cause of a problem.

You simply struggle with self-doubt: Don’t we all? Okay, some people don’t, I guess, but I haven’t met them. The more practice you get at making decisions, the better you will get at it. Success will breed success. A couple of actions you can take right now to decrease your doubt are:

  • Know what you know and what you don’t. Consider literally reviewing what you know—about your departmental activities, your entire organization, your industry—on a regular basis. In reviewing, you might uncover some gaps you need to fill the whole picture. The more you stay on top of what is going on around you, the more prepared you will be to pull your thoughts together quickly.
  • Build your expert posse. You can’t possibly know everything all the time, but you can know who to go to for what. Identify the people around you who are as geeky as you and who have a depth of knowledge on topics that aren’t your specialty. Build relationships with each of them, enough to ensure that they will answer your text in a hurry when you need them. Offer your own expertise when they need it. As we say at Blanchard, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
  • Know your waterline. It is easy to get paralyzed by the fear of risk when you aren’t entirely sure what the consequences will be. So you need to know exactly where your decision-making authority reaches its limits. You need to know the tolerable mistakes you can make on your own, compared with those you have to escalate because they could sink the ship. In other words, you must know where the waterline is and which decisions could affect the soundness of the whole boat.

I learned this concept from my husband, Scott. He was blown away by it when he worked with W.L. Gore & Associates, where it is one of their company values. They define it this way: “We are all shareholders, and we will consult with the appropriate Associates before taking an action ‘below the waterline’ that could cause serious damage to the long-term success or reputation of our Enterprise.”

Sit down with your manager and establish where your waterline is—which consequences are acceptable, if imperfect, and which consequences will cause big problems. This concept will serve you well when you start managing people.

The wishy-washiness part is fun for you: I have a dear friend who agonizes over the menu when we go out to dinner together. It is maddening. She is a wildly successful professional who, though thoughtful and deliberate with big decisions, does not, thank God, belabor them. But her menu scrutiny would delay our order and, thus, my dinner. She finally noticed my annoyance and called me out on it. We discussed it and uncovered that, as a true foodie, she enjoyed the process of examining every item on the menu and discussing its possible merits, while I was simply hungry. We devised a solution: I would quickly order an appetizer when we sat down so that I could manage my blood sugar. She, then, would be able to take her time savoring her options. My point? You have to recognize when you can indulge your desire to go deep and savor the moment, and you can’t.  Do it when you can, enjoy it.  Cut to the chase when you have a tight timeline.

I know, Paralyzed. This post was too long. I hope I haven’t made you sorry you asked. I had an awful lot of fun coming up with your answer, though, so for that I thank you. Remember: you are going to be just fine. Einstein (no dummy) said “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” And Winston Churchill said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

So geek on out with these ideas, and then go forth and be decisive. You will absolutely make some mistakes. It is the only way for you to grow and become more valuable to your organization. You will get smarter and braver, and be well on the way to fulfilling your very high potential.

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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