How Can Leaders Make Empowered Decisions?

Mike Gellman

Leaders are often called upon to make difficult decisions. There are usually many shades of grey in the situations we face which can make things even more challenging to figure out on our own.

Sometimes we instinctively jump in to make a quick decision – too quickly – then we find ourselves backtracking to reverse the damage from an error in judgment. At other times, we either overanalyze or shy away from making a difficult decision and it subsequently gets made for us or an opportunity is lost – much to our chagrin and disappointment. Neither scenario is ideal. Our sense of confidence and control becomes shaken.

Fortunately, there’s a way out of these pernicious traps. What if you could make empowered decisions that led to improved and more satisfying outcomes? I’d like to share some strategies for you to do just that.

1. Start With Questions

Start by brainstorming all of the different questions that could relate to the decision you’re making. When we start with potential solutions, we can get trapped in our limited thinking. However, when we ask questions, this by nature expands our thinking beyond what we already know.

Once you have brainstormed a healthy amount of questions, truly make an effort to seek out answers from reliable sources. For similar reasons for asking questions, seek advice from more than just one person. By soliciting input from multiple sources (e.g. your team and colleagues), you will have greater confidence that you’re making an informed decision based on diverse perspectives. Plus you’ll be sending a message to your direct reports and colleagues that you value their ideas and modeling the way for others too!

This brings me to my next strategy.

2. Challenge Your Assumptions

Ask yourself. What is your initial impulse about this decision, and why do you feel the way you do about it? Oftentimes, we make decisions based on confirmation bias. We seek out information that confirms the info we already want to believe, instead of striving to seek the truth.

When you are in a leadership position, this is crucial. What you want or believe, may not be the best decision for the group. You may have to work hard to get honest opinions because of “groupthink.”

Groupthink occurs when everyone in the room is adopting the same mindset, and no one is challenging assumptions (out loud). Sometimes, someone might have a private thought that opposes the group, but they’re afraid to bring it up publicly. This is especially true in supervisor-employee relationships, where the power dynamic is imbalanced. It is your responsibility as a leader to make sure you are seeking out and acknowledging candid feedback.

3. Adopt an “As if” Mindset

Many years ago, I was in an entrepreneurship program at San Diego State University. We had a project that required coming up with a budget forecast for a business plan. One of the student teams was putting together a plan for a restaurant and asked the professor the best way to go about it. “Where to start?” They were feeling stuck.

The teacher advised them to imagine they had to present their budget to a bank the next day. What would they do? They were still stuck trying to come up with the “right” answer. The professor pressed them further. “Why not just go to Costco?” She went on to explain that they could easily walk the aisles and look at the cost of food and supplies while jotting down what they would need. It wouldn’t be perfectly accurate, but it would get them started on pulling together an estimated budget based on some real numbers.

For those who tend to get stuck in analysis paralysis, it’s important to note that the goal isn’t perfection. After all, there are tradeoffs with any decision. There are typically changing variables that are out of our control. Once you get started, then other ideas percolate, and then you’re moving right along. You can always improve from your original ideas.

Are there times when you are striving for perfection? Of course. For example, it’s worth taking the extra effort and time when making a decision involving a life and death situation or one that will affect the safety of others. I think I would want my surgeon or airplane pilot to be at their sharpest. The COVID-19 situation we’re in right now would fit that category—e.g. bringing employees back to work prematurely without proper safety protocols could be disastrous. If the decisions you are making could put others at risk, you have a duty as a leader to take extra steps to ensure you’re making a well-thought-out and wise decision.

4. Identify Your Key Values

Values serve as a great anchor for decision-making. We tend to act on our values—often unknowingly. Then again, we often stray from our core values whether acting spontaneously in the moment or becoming influenced by other factors.

When you are clear on your values, you can filter any potential decision you make through your values like a sieve to help determine how you should move forward. My core personal values include integrity, impact, excellence, engagement, courage, and growth. When facing a challenging decision, I’ll ask myself questions to assess the extent to which the decision I’m considering aligns with these values.

For example, there was a time when I needed to decide on whether to speak up or stay quiet about something that my boss said to our team that bothered me. I drew upon my values of integrity, courage, and growth to decide that speaking up was the right thing for me to do (and for which my team appreciated as well).

Here’s an exercise: Brainstorm and write down a list of what you value. Then circle the ones that stand out to you from a leadership perspective. See if you can whittle your list down to five top values for you as a leader. Then, when you find yourself making a tough decision, run it through your value filter and ask yourself “Does this choice align with my values? Will this choice reflect who I am and want to be?”

5. Envision a role model

You may have heard this type of phrase: “What would __________ do?” It’s easier to have guidance from someone we admire. Fill in the blank with a leader you admire. They could be a leader at your company, a mentor, or a family member.

One of my favorite role models is Jack Canfield. When presented with a decision around something that will take him outside his comfort zone, he needs to go beyond his comfort zone, he often says, “What the heck, I’ll do it anyway.” I love that. Sometimes I find myself making a decision, and I channel that. What the heck! I’ll do it anyway.

How about you? Is there someone you can conjure up in your mind to help you put yourself in their shoes when making decisions? That can be a great catalyst.

I hope these five strategies for empowered decision-making help you in your next big decision. You can always practice these techniques with small, low-risk decisions so that you are used to the process when a larger, high-stakes decision comes up.

What strategy will you try out the next time you’re making a tough decision?

Do you struggle with decision-making? I would love to partner with you and help you create your next breakthrough. Learn more about executive coaching to support your organization. Book a complimentary discovery session for us to explore your options.

About the Author:
Mike Gellman is a seasoned coach, speaker, facilitator, and trusted advisor with 15+ years of experience in Fortune 500, nonprofit, and family-owned organizations. He’s the author of Pipe Dreams: 7 Pipelines of Career Success and CEO of High Five Career Coaching which facilitates transformational business and career success among socially conscious, purpose-driven organizations, leaders, and technical professionals.