That Tough Decision You’re Avoiding Won’t Get Easier with Time

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A growing body of evidence shows that anticipated regret, the fear of future shame or guilt, plays a big role in risky decision-making.

If the last two years of navigating the pandemic did nothing else, it revealed just how consequential even the most seemingly immaterial decisions can be. We perseverate over small things, and we impulsively blast through complex things. We’re not wired to be great decision makers, it seems. In both business and life, you are going to face difficult situations—those which require hard decision-making. Some situations will take more critical thinking than others, but regardless, the decision you make could change the course of your situation, or your life, immensely. And understandably, when we feel that way, we don’t like it. Research on decision making shows we tend to be more impulsive under stress. Spotting false patterns, we reach for premature conclusions rather than opening ourselves to more and better options. 

It’s instinct to shy away from such circumstances, especially when there are repercussions at stake. Most people end up avoiding the process entirely. However, this often leads to even bigger consequences that could have been prevented.

So, why do we continue to put ourselves through such physically and mentally taxing cycles? 

You may be afraid of making the wrong decisions, or the consequences of making the right one. You may be concerned with what other people will think about you, particularly your peers. Perhaps you’re a stickler for perfection. In some cases, it may be simply because you’re out of practice. 

However you rationalize it, hard decisions only increase in complexity the longer they’re avoided. Especially if you’re in a leadership position, the need to make tough calls will only escalate as you grow in your career. 

Fortunately, like any skill, making difficult decisions can become less burdensome with practice. Here’s how conquering your “decidophobia” now will make your future decision-making easier …

Making Timely Hard Decisions Reduces Stress and Anxiety

Everybody has fallen victim to procrastination. Maybe it was delaying the completion of the project as an employee. Perhaps it was the delegation of one as a leader. Instead of fulfilling your role on time, you developed feelings of regret, stress, and anxiety. The more your pushed aside your duties, the more you wish you had done them sooner.

A growing body of evidence shows that anticipated regret, the fear of future shame or guilt, plays a big role in risky decision-making. This very feeling motivates many people’s actions (or lack thereof), and most avoid tough decisions in an effort to reduce potential stress or remorse—which, ironically, only causes the feeling to intensify. 

Col. Sukhdeep Singh, director of the product strategy at Orro, shared his thoughts on the matter:

“When you’re in a leadership role, much of the decision-making has to do with taking and accepting risks on behalf of others—a responsibility that generates much stress and anxiety. Once you remove those feelings, the process of making those decisions becomes easier and less complicated. We’re able to look at situations more objectively, instead of letting our emotions get in the way.”

It’s easy to experience decision paralysis in the face of challenging situations. Yet as a leader, it’s your job to make tough decisions on a regular basis and move forward. The longer you procrastinate on doing so, the tougher the decision-making will become. 

In one organization I worked with, an executive was given four months to prepare his department for significant budget cuts that would go into effect when the next fiscal year began, on March 1. In November, he decided that ruining people’s holidays with the news would be cruel. When January came, he felt people were already too focused on closing out the year with final reports and the extra work of planning for the new fiscal year. By early February, everyone had completed their planning and had already built budgets that now exceeded the targeted cuts. When people found out about the cuts, they were understandably upset by the excessive rework they now had to do, not to mention disappointed by the loss of funding for the projects they had hoped to take on. And when they found out their boss had known about the cuts for months, they felt deceived and angry. 

The emotional turmoil the executive believed he was avoiding for the past four months was now much harsher than it needed to be. Worse, they made poorer decisions with just a few weeks’ notice. Had they used the four months to plan, they would’ve been able to work through their emotional pain while having more time to think creatively about their options. 

The most significant consequence was that the executive missed an opportunity to help his team build resilience in the face of a tough challenge. Instead of learning to rally together and find creative solutions, they felt demoralized and confused by their leader’s deceit. He had essentially taught them that they shouldn’t talk openly about bad news. 

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Give Attention to What Matters Most

Making hard decisions in your life can already seem daunting, but in business, the consequence of indecision can involve lost income, opportunities, and productivity. The time, money, and effort you spend going back and forth on whether or not to make a decision could instead be directed toward more important issues that affect the company as a whole. 

In many cases, the weight of a decision can seem greater than what it truly is. Suddenly, all of the “what ifs” spiral out of control to the point where the assumed consequences of a decision become far too unrealistic. The best way to combat this is by sticking with what you know—determine the facts, analyze them, discuss them with your team, and narrow your focus on the most beneficial options.

Many people make decisions based on hopes, wishes, and dreams. But as a company leader, your decision must be founded on more factual support. The best decisions are often made using extensive data and information, so ensure your company has the necessary tools for you to do so. 

Put the Organization’s Success First

As a leader, how you handle the hard situations will ultimately shape the future of your organization. Each time you are presented with a challenging choice, consider how it will affect your company’s decision-making culture in the future. 

“Every leader has at one point been faced with a trying situation,” Singh said. “Likewise, every leader has chosen the wrong one at least once in their career. But many of them can tell you they were better off for it, or that there was very little lasting effect. Was there pain at the moment? Absolutely. But whatever that feeling may be, it will pale in comparison to the overall growth and achievements of your business.”

Make the Decision and Look Beyond the Moment

With most tough decision-making, executives are required to look not only at the immediate gains or losses from a choice but also at the potential long-term effects. When faced with any difficult situation, be careful not to place urgency over importance. The most reliable course of action will involve taking a step back, pondering the pros and cons, and realizing whether or not the decision will affect the company in the long run. 

Consider billionaire Warren Buffet’s 10/10/10 rule: How will this decision make me feel in 10 minutes? How will it make me feel in 10 months? How will this decision make me feel in 10 years?

Then, consider how each of these applies to your organization. This forces you to look beyond the impulses, fears, and other emotions of the moment, think further ahead, and help you make better decisions in the future, even when presented with the most challenging circumstances.

Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.

Reprinted with permission from Forbes.