“More is lost by indecision than wrong decision. Indecision is the thief of opportunity. It will steal you blind.” Marcus Tullius Cicero uttered these wise words over 2000 years ago. And they are just as relevant today.
Decision-making is central to the character and ability of a leader to effectively lead. It defines organizations and shapes the perspectives of their stakeholders. In situations, such as a crisis, the world can stand back and witness decision over indecision. They then can gauge how the consequences determine whether those decisions (or lack thereof) were successful or not.
When confronted with choices, everyone faces decision paralysis at times. Ordering a meal in a restaurant. Where should I go on vacation? Or with bigger decisions such as, “Which house to buy?” or with life decisions…”Should I take this job or not?” The bigger the stakes, the harder the decision. Research indicates tough decisions can tire our brains, and like a muscle when it gets depleted, it becomes less effective (Amir). It is impossible to estimate the number of decisions we make in a day and their degree of difficulty, but Cornell University researchers found, for example, that in the course of one day, people make about 230 decisions about food alone (Wansink, Sobal).
As PR practitioners, we are continually faced with vital decisions often with lasting consequences. Developing an effective response statement in a crisis. Weighing the merits of whether or not to take an interview with a high-profile media channel. Deciding on the best messages that support a product launch? How to effectively position a new leader to our organization and the outside world? We need to continually reassess the potential risks and rewards of any given decision, weighing pros and cons, often on the fly, and very quickly.
Not every PR practitioner goes through mental gymnastics to help guide decision-making. Some PR practitioners may operate more instinctively and make decisions based on a gut feeling or past practice. Basic analytical skills of scenario planning and critical thinking are not in everyone’s toolbox. How do we evaluate our indecision when we are faced with it?
Indecision is defined as “difficulty in making a decision in a specific area” (Rassin). However, if a leader experiences a difficult decision in more than one area, then being indecisive becomes a trait and is characterized as that person having indecisiveness (Rassin).
Germeijs and de Boeck (2002) identify ways in which indecisiveness can manifest itself. For example, making a decision can take a long time, not knowing how to make a decision, delaying and avoiding making a decision, delegating the decision to others to make, changing a decision once it has been made and finally, worrying about and regretting a decision that has already been made. Often, leaders can become paralyzed making decisions because they fear their decision will not be the right one (Rassin).
On the other hand, being decisive is admirable. Author Larina Kase (2010) states, “When we think of what makes someone a great leader, one characteristic that comes to mind is decisiveness. We do not envision successful leaders standing around appearing unclear and uncertain. Instead, we view them as people who are able to quickly arrive at their decisions and communicate the goals to others.” As PR leaders and practitioners, we want to help the decision makers we support to make the best decisions. In the real time world of social media and its ubiquity, there is no place in leadership for indecisiveness.
A 2017 study reviewed more than 17,000 assessments of C-suite executives, including 2,000 CEOs. Researchers identified the traits that set successful CEOs apart from others. The trait at the top of the list was deciding with speed and conviction (Botehlo, Powell, Kincaid, Wang). What the study found was that “high-performing CEOs do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions all the time; rather, they stand out for being more decisive. They make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction” (Snowden, Boone). In fact, leaders who were described as “decisive” were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs.
Not all decisions are equal, so how do we evaluate them? Under the “Cynefin,” conceptual framework executives are able to see things from new viewpoints, assimilate complex concepts and address real-world problems and opportunities” (Snowden, Boone). Issues facing leaders that require decisions are organized into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect of the decision. Four of these—simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic—require leaders to diagnose situations and to respond in appropriate ways. The fifth— “disorder”—applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant” (Snowden, Boone).
The study states that “complicated contexts may contain multiple right answers, and though there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it.” (Snowden, Boone). Further, “while leaders in a simple context must sense, categorize, and respond to a situation, those in a complicated context must sense, analyze, and respond” (Snowden, Boone).
What can help you make decisions when faced with escalating complications interfering with your ability to make a decision? Your values can help.
Let Your Values Guide Your Decisions
Richard Hochhauser, former CEO of Harte-Hanks and professor at New York University tells a compelling story about values and how, in making a decision, he came to a realization about his own values. “Nearly 20 years ago my two young adult children asked if partners of gay employees had insurance in the company where I was CEO. They didn’t let the subject go, and ultimately it made sense to me. I asked my CFO to evaluate the cost of providing this coverage – he was very surprised by the request. A few weeks later he indicated the cost would not be significant but asked if I was sure I wanted to do this. I was sure, and we changed our policy. Nine months later an employee stopped and hugged me – saying how meaningful this was in his life. At the time this could have been viewed as a controversial decision, but it was the right one…. drawn from my children’s values, and they made me see they were my values as well.” In this situation, the former CEO challenged himself to reconsider a decision, based on a reflection of his own values that made a positive impact on his organization and helped break new ground.
How can leaders intentionally connect with their values in making a decision? Paul Ingram, the Kravis Professor of Business at Columbia Business School helps leaders do just that through what he calls a “values hierarchy” (Ingram). Leaders prioritize their values in terms of importance and then address the relative merits of making specific decisions in terms of the extent to which they address their (or their organization’s) values. Through this system of assigning values to decisions and the extent to which they satisfy values, either their personal and/or organization values, executives can be guided in decision-making. By following this construct, leaders have an effective way to connect values with decisions, especially when there are conflicting interests at play. It forces executives (and organizations) to have stated, credible values and prioritize them.
What Can We Do?
It is important to be prepared for a crisis. In a crisis, we know that being indecisive does not lead to good results. A lack of response is seen negatively, as a sign of weak leadership and can be construed that we are at fault, uncaring or incompetent. There are important considerations that guide us in making better decisions when under this kind of pressure. Crisis expert, NYU and Columbia faculty member Helio Fred Garcia discusses in his recently published book “The Agony of Decision” the importance of what he calls “mental readiness.” He states, “the response is what determines the outcome and that requires mental readiness. Mental readiness consists of habits of the mind…the persistent ability to remain calm, to think clearly and to understand the concerns of others. While the crisis unfolds, and the situation deteriorates, and people panic, through preparation, clear thinking, self-awareness and situational awareness the chances for best results are optimized “ (Garcia).
Know Your Terrain: We often gravitate to the conventional and comfortable, but things don’t generally happen the same way twice. In public relations, the decisions we routinely make influence trust and reputation, and protect and advance that for the organizations we support and the leaders who run them. Indecision cannot be in our vocabulary. We need to routinely analyze potential situations we face through well-conceived issues management programs. We need to fine-tune our critical thinking skills so when facing decisions, we can more easily see the complexities we face. In this way, we will be better equipped to make decisions based on intellect rater than instinct. Or worse still, let indecisiveness take over.
Be the Voice of Reason. Leaders are often reassured when decisions are backed up with thorough analysis. We can help leaders understand the consequences of their decisions. Often times, decisions that are poorly conceived have not had the added benefit of a PR expert providing different ways of looking at a decision and its potential outcome. PR pros need to have the “proverbial seat at the table” and regularly anticipate what scenarios could happen. Leaders may not always want to hear the advice, but they will be well served if they do.
Reassess and Prioritize Your Values: Values should be reassessed periodically to ensure they are relevant to an organization. They can change over time. Importantly, as Professor Ingram points out, we should understand the relative ranking of our values and which holds the most importance to us. This will be helpful in weighing decisions and helping guide us along a path that supports us and the organizations we represent.
Be Adaptable: Research suggests that effective leadership “requires openness to change on an individual level” (Snowden, Boone). Effective leaders understand not only how to identify the type of decision they are facing and its complexity, but also how to change their behavior and their decisions to match the type of decision they are confronted with (Minsky, Tang).
Think Like a Stakeholder: When we are challenged by making a decision that has stakeholder ramifications, we need to think about the impact of our decisions on those stakeholders. This is where understanding your stakeholders, their needs and requirements are especially important. Frequently, the lens we use is our own, with our own biases and preferences. By taking the time and effort to explore the multiple perspectives of your stakeholders will guide you to a better decision outcome (Minsky, Tang).
Revisit Decisions We Make (and Admit When We Are Wrong): We need to revisit the decisions we make. This can be painful. “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions,” explains that “the reality is that important decisions made by intelligent, responsible people with the best information and intentions are sometimes hopelessly flawed” (Campbell, Whitehead, Finkelstein).
Leaders also need to admit when they have made a wrong decision.
Karen Firestone, CEO of Aureus Asset Management states, “Developing a culture where people feel comfortable admitting mistakes needs to start at the top, because employees watch their leaders for clues on acceptable behavior and etiquette. One of the most valuable things that a manager can teach her staff is the ability (no matter how embarrassing) to show fallibility, admit wrongdoing, listen to tough feedback, and persevere through the corrective action toward the next challenge” (2017).
These steps can help us as leaders avoid the pitfalls of indecision. In this era you can never know everything and there is a seemingly unending amount of information out there. Cicero would be amazed at what we have available to us by a keystroke, and the temptation it presents to keep collecting, studying, assessing. But Cicero knew that there comes a time when you need to decide, and move forward.
New or changing information can require a different decision down the road, but ultimately, leaders make choices, often tough choices, and gives them the opportunity to do great things. Guided by your values, it is important to assess when you have enough information and the right information to decide. Ultimately, we need to be candid with ourselves when we could have done better so we improve our decisions the next time and be seen as more effective leaders. Or, better still, be in the position to congratulate ourselves on a decision well made!
Jacqueline Strayer is a faculty member in graduate programs in marketing and public relations at NYU, a consultant and a former CCO of three global publicly traded companies. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Amir, On. “Tough Decisions: How Making Decisions Tires Your Brain”. (2008) Scientific American.
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