How to Make Better Decisions at Work

Businessman staring at a chalkboard with many questions

Decisions are at the center of all of our daily managerial and leadership activities. Some decisions are fairly easy; there’s a policy in place that dictates the correct option given a set of circumstances. Others, including choices surrounding direction, problem-solving, and investment, are less programmed or structured and generally involve higher stakes.

It is this latter grouping of unstructured issues that test your abilities as a decision-maker and impacts your ultimate success as a manager. Get these issues right more often than not, and you prosper. Get them wrong too often, and those responsible for selecting you for added responsibilities will lose faith and look to individuals they can trust with the big decisions.

Beware Allowing Emotions to Unduly Influence Your Decisions

Emotions and big, complex decisions do not mix. They either motivate a rush to judgment or slow our process down to a crawl. When we are feeling pressured, our logical brain is in the background, while the rest of our gray matter works overtime to figure out how to move beyond the stress.

Guidance: If the situation is emotionally turbocharged, resist the rush to decide and step back and gain some help in looking at the problem and options objectively. Use the tools outlined below to help reframe and assess your options and expectations.

Do Not Focus on a Single Positive or Negative Frame

Research shows that when facing the same problem described as either a positive or a negative, we will make different decisions. It pays to look for solutions to complex problems from multiple angles by adjusting your framing. 

Guidance: Use multiple frames and strive to develop independent decisions for each frame. For example, if a competitor makes a bold new move in the marketplace, you might perceive this as a big negative for your firm. This frame might demand a me-too response. Instead, reframe the issue to indicate that the competitor has chosen to focus on this new area and will be less able to invest in or respond to your moves in other areas. Your challenge is now to identify potential areas of opportunity that the competitor’s move has left uncovered. Framing makes a difference.

Cultivate a "Trust but Verify" Relationship With Data

While we all talk about data-driven decisions, we must beware anchoring on only the data that supports our position and ignoring other data or drawing imperfect inferences from the limited data in front of us. And of course, the quality and reliability of the data should always be questioned.

Guidance: Resist simply drawing on the data in front of you and ask: “What data do I/we need to make this decision?” Search for data that sheds light on the issue, regardless of whether it supports or refutes a direction. Ask for help to evaluate the completeness and objectivity of the data, and encourage others to challenge your inferences to minimize the chances of you selectively interpreting the information.

Beware the Decision-Traps, Particularly in Group Settings

Wherever humans gather, we bring our biases, histories, and values to bear on our thinking. Power structure or personality issues in a group setting can suppress open dialog. Groups are prone to falling in love with their solution, suppressing objective, and outside views. The theory suggests that a group should be able to make a decision superior to that of the smartest individual in the group. However, there are more than a few complex human behaviors that get in the way of this ideal but noble outcome. 

Guidance: Get help. Invite an objective outsider to monitor group conversations, challenge assumptions, and identify potential process pitfalls. This simple step is often ignored, yet it is low-cost and can potentially keep you and your team from stepping off a decision cliff.

Beware the Tendency to Reverse Decisions Too Easily

While adjusting a decision based on lessons learned or the availability of new and compelling evidence is appropriate, too many managers fall victim to self-doubt or the continued lobbying efforts of others. Change course too frequently, and the stress and frustration on your team will rise. 

Guidance: Use a decision journal and capture in long-form, the issue, the frame(s), the assumptions, the expectations, and the time-frame for evaluating results. Have the individuals involved in the decision-making process sign the log! It is amazing how firm a decision becomes when you have to sign a document indicating that you agree with the decision. And of course, make certain that there is a change-management process in place if events truly necessitate a course adjustment.

Learn From Prior Decisions and Keep Improving

Approach strengthening your decision-making capabilities like you would your fitness program by evaluating progress and outcomes and adjusting your future behaviors accordingly.

Guidance: Keep a personal decision-journal in addition to the group journal suggested above. Make it a practice to regularly return to this journal and compare outcomes versus expectations. If they differ materially, re-examine your assumptions. Look for flaws in your thinking or problems with data. Take the time to reflect on lessons learned. Jot down how you will improve the process the next time you face a similar decision.

Teach Your Team to Make Better Decisions

We live and work in a world of projects and teams, and effective managers invest time in helping their teams learn to navigate the sticky decision-related issues they encounter effectively.

Guidance: All of the lessons above apply to groups. Teach your teams how to use multiple frames, how to assess data needs, and how to evaluate data integrity. Teach them to avoid the traps by involving objective outsiders and require them to log decisions and expectations. If the team will exist for more than the duration of an individual project, hold the team accountable for assessing and measurably strengthening decision-making effectiveness over time.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Decisions give life to actions, and as the late management guru, Peter Drucker suggested, “actions in the present are the one and only way to create the future.” In my experience, managers who deliberately work on strengthening their decision-making effectiveness, prosper. Not only do they make the big decisions that set actions in motion, but they develop a batting average that impresses bosses and earns added responsibilities. Quit winging your decisions and implement a deliberate process to make more effective decisions and to strengthen your effectiveness over time.