How to Be an Above-Average Decider

By Alexander Stein
Featured on BNET Insight | BNET Blog

We’ve all been there: the crossroads between one decision and another: Go or stay? Now or later? This or that? What’s right? Sometimes, the answer’s easy  the choice seems obvious and you just know what to do; sometimes, it’s not. And sometimes you make decisions you don’t even realize you’re making.

So what goes into a high-stakes decision? And how can you improve your stats on making advantageous choices?

Being a consistently above-average decider is about more than devising a roster of binary options  do vs. don’t, this vs. that, now vs. then, here vs. there  and then pulling each trigger with optimal timing such that intention and outcome are aligned. All important, to be sure. But it’s only what you’re deciding, the external metrics of goals and actions.

The DNA of how and why you make decisions is different. It’s fundamentally about who you are, and what happens to you in x, y, or z circumstance.

Consider Ed Clooney (not his real name), 55, who heads a 60-employee East Coast advertising firm. In our first meeting, Ed fired off criticisms of his senior managers  middling project execution, waffling on client matters, mishandling staff and operations issues, squabbling between themselves. My task: “Figure out why my boys are off track and get them back on it,” he implored.

I’ve heard this from the corner office before; the story is inevitably more complicated. Far from being ineffectual, I eventually learned that Ed’s management team was holstering its collective skills and talents in response to Ed. Though he was completely unaware of it, turned out Ed used a bait and switch: He thought he was encouraging Alpha decisiveness  and so felt justified in his annoyance at his lieutenants’ failures to follow his leadership. But what he unwittingly communicated was that he didn’t really want anybody else in the driver’s seat. Even if you drove well, he’d criticize you for taking the wheel. Ed’s a smart, creative entrepreneur who’d hired top-shelf people and built a successful company. He could make great decisions. And he hadn’t always behaved this way. What was going on now?

Ed’s super-charged imperative to call the shots, I came to understand, was originally shaped by his growing up with a sick father and having to care for his younger brothers while their mother was off working. It’s not all bad; that history played its part in propelling him to work hard, build his business, stay healthy, and take care of his boys. But it also generated a need to never feel incompetent or weak.

After a time, Ed confided to me that he was privately considering stepping back from the helm, and was assessing his senior team for a potential successor.

The possibility of relinquishing command  an unspoken and undecided decision  was the spark for Ed’s seemingly inexplicable down shift in leadership. Though a potentially positive move for him and his company, it called-up a dire backward-looking vision unrelated to business: his being the absent father and letting his family/company collapse.

What to do? Ed’s recognizing there was something he couldn’t figure out  which actually went beyond what he thought it was  and then reaching for assistance was its own difficult decision. Looking ahead, Ed need not reveal his intentions regarding stewardship before he’s ready to. But he has to understand that the mere idea of it is causing reactions in him that are already adversely impacting his senior staff and their work together. Reconciling his ambivalence about what he’s planning will enable Ed to devise ways of redistributing power and authority so his managers can play to their strengths. Likewise, they need to stop passively ceding their assets to keep Ed from unraveling, and get back to business.

So what can you think about when facing important decisions?

Every decision is situationally distinct, with its own unique sets of ingredients, parameters, and ramifications. There’s no shortage of pundits bloviating on the golden rules of being (or appearing) decisive and vivisecting leaders who are not. But static generalized guidelines about how to be a leader who makes excellent decisions are usually situationally useless. Good decision-making is a learned, entirely individualistic process. Knowing more about how you operate is part of every successful business owner’s job.

Timing and context can change everything. Ed was treating his executive activities as if his life literally depended on it. At one time in his life, that was true in its own way. But no longer. Even supremely unflappable people can become psychologically disoriented in highly charged moments, and your usual capabilities can slip. So take your time. Agility and decisiveness aren’t in opposition to being thoughtful and deliberative.

Sometimes, the most important part of a good decision is understanding what’s driving you to make it.