How To Live With A Really Bad Decision
Avoiding bad decisions is not the objective; owning them is.
Think of the last really bad decision you made. You may be living through it right now. How did it, or how does it, feel? Not so great, right? Well get used to it!
An Inconvenient Truth
Here's a very inconvenient truth. As a leader you will make lots of really bad decisions. It's inevitable because none of us are infallible. But as leaders we have many more opportunities to make decisions that anyone else. So, by definition, you will make more bad decisions than anyone else. The answer is not to stop making decisions or to make just good decisions but rather to recognize the bad ones and get out of them as quickly as possible before you end up stuck on a path that you know is going to lead to even more damage.
"There are innumerable times when I've committed myself to a course of action that I soon realize was made for all of the right reasons but was fundamentally flawed."
That's a lot easier than it sounds because when we make a decision our natural inclination is to stick with them as we dedicate resources, time, and energy to them, not to mention the momentum that builds around any decision as we start to advertise it to our teammates, colleagues, friends, and family.
I'm not above this. There are innumerable times when I've committed myself to a course of action that I soon realize was made for all of the right reasons but was fundamentally flawed.
Taking The Penalty Shot
So, what if I were to tell you that your effectiveness as a leader and your likelihood of success is based as much on undoing bad decisions as it is on making good ones? Not something you want to hear, right? After all we are measured based on the ability to take action and stand by our actions. But that's exactly the problem. Action is not in and of itself a virtue. In other words, don't just decide for the sake of deciding. Measuring your effectiveness by simply measuring your ability to take action is like measuring the success of a soccer goalie by his or her ability to jump to one side of the net or the other without considering where the ball is going. That may sound contrite but studies have actually been done on goalies blocking penalty kicks which show precisely how great the danger of action can be when it's done purely for the purpose of appearing to be decisive.
When a goalie blocks a penalty shot there is simply not enough time to react after the ball is kicked in any way that can predict the trajectory of the ball. The time it takes for the ball to travel from the penalty line to the goal is always less than the time it takes for the goalie to react. But here's the kicker (sorry!). The vast majority of goalies will jump to one side or the other before the ball is kicked in an attempt to block the shot. In reality goalies who do this are less likely to block the ball than those who simply stand in the middle of the net! But when asked why they jump the response is that not jumping will be perceived as inaction on their part! So they end up with a behavior that appears to be decisive even though it is not effective--in fact its worse than that, it's down right incorrect.
"...fear paralyzes us and keeps us on the path of a bad decision long after we should have taken corrective action."
The same applies to many of the decisions we make as leaders. But it's much worse because the difference is that you always have time to switch sides if you have the fortitude and courage to say you made a mistake and switch to the other side of the net. Sounds much too simple doesn't it? So, why don't we switch sides? Most often because we are fearful of the way we will be perceived as vacillating or being indecisive. That fear paralyzes us and keeps us on the path of a bad decision long after we should have taken corrective action. As a coach to leaders I often find myself in situations where a decision made by a leader is clearly the wrong way to go but which the leader is loath to give up on for fear of the way they will be perceived.
Getting Back On The Right Path
So, here's bulletproof way to correct those bad decisions.
First, own the decision. Be clear with others as to why it was made and the purpose behind it. It's exceptionally rare that a bad decision is made for bad reasons. What is almost always the case is that the reasons were solid and well thought out at the time but they did not take into consideration all of the factors which have emerged since the decision was made. One of the most profound examples of this I've encountered is the philosophy at 3M of not penalizing employees who make attempts at new innovations for the right reasons but who do not succeed in their efforts due to unforeseen complications. Your objective should alway be the health and welfare of you organization. And if you have to call yourself out to achieve that objective it's your responsibility to do so. I often turn the tables on my CEOs and ask them what they would do if they were looking at themselves as an objective third party providing counsel on the decision they fear to turnover. The answer is always pretty clear when they take their own ego out of the equation.
Second, acknowledge that the decision was wrong and don't feel compelled to right the wrong decision by immediately making a new one. Rushing into any decision is risky but rushing from a bad decision immediately into another one is the riskiest behavior of all. I've seen organizations and lives ruined because of this sort of impulsive behavior. You're simply not in a position of clarity to do so just yet. Be patient with yourself and take the time to recover. Once you're in a place where you have clarity and conviction you can take the corrective action needed. That does't mean getting lazy and avoiding making a decision, it simply means that good decisions are not made in times of panic or through pure reactionary emotions. IT's your company, your life, give it the patience it deserves.
Third, accept that this is not the last bad decisions and that you will make more bad decisions than good ones, but what counts is that the good ones outweigh and eclipse the bad ones. This many be the toughest thing of all to accept. But I can tell you first hand that I have yet to encounter an effective leader who does not understand and accept this point. If you do not accept this then you will end up in the category of leaders who are just unable to make decisions because they fear that some of them won;t turn out well. Guess what? Most of them won't! The key is making sure that the good decisions are great, because that's what you will ultimately be measured on, the overall success of your decision making ability not the individual success or failure of any one decision.
You're a leader but you're also human, bad decisions are unavoidable, but owning, acknowledging, and accepting them is the mark of a great leader--so get used to it!