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Good decision making is a critical life skill – one that is learned and can be constantly improved. As we become better at making decisions, we realize that there are many aspects to the process. That risk assessment – while a seemingly sound, reasonable approach to unassailable decision making - does not always yield the most desirable or ethical result.*

A principled decision-making process involves taking into consideration other concerned individuals, our workplaces, our society and all reasonable alternatives. It takes into account consequences, ambiguities and varying results on the way to arriving at the best decision for all involved. And, ultimately, delivers more enriched outcomes and satisfying solutions.

I look forward to hearing that this month’s feature story – Making REALLY Smart Decisions - will assist you in moving your process along more swiftly, naturally and with greater ease.


* In 1978, it was established that a flaw in design caused the gasoline tanks on Ford Pintos to explode upon rear-end impact resulting in a number of deaths and injuries. During the discovery phase of the lawsuits that ensued, it was revealed that Ford was well aware of the problem. However, as corporate documents showed, their lawyers and accountants advised top management that a recall to fix the problem would cost the company more than the projected awards or settlements arising from such lawsuits. A recall would have averted those deaths and injuries, but Ford clearly - and shockingly – based their decision to do otherwise solely on the ‘bottom line.’ An equally clear expression of who they were. If it had been determined that lawsuit damages would have been greater than the cost of a recall, Ford may have ordered the latter and looked to all the world to be making a humanitarian decision. Only they would have known they were still serving the ‘bottom line’ illustrating the sometimes shadowy result of using risk assessment as the primary decision-making tool.


Recent quotes from Coach Joyce K. Reynolds have appeared in the Wall Street Journal; American Airlines Magazine, The American Way; Cosmopolitan;; Microsoft's; USA Today; Working Mother Magazine; and on, The Learning Channel.



While we can live neither comfortably nor effectively absent of good decision-making skills, many of us find these among the most difficult to acquire. Our process is often clouded or made more troublesome by lack of self-knowledge. We come to find that we have not used the challenge of decision-making to clarify our purpose or develop a broader life view. In which case, our tutor becomes life experience – often assigning us painful lessons.

Here are some ways we can not only improve our decision-making process but become better defined as individuals:

1. Don’t Let Anyone Make Them for You.
William James pointed out, “When you have to make a choice and don't make it, that is in itself a choice.” And, that’s when life takes over. It is vital to accept the fact that - unless we determine to faithfully manage our own lives, making the best, most thoughtful decisions along the way - life will manage for us. Which means we hand ourselves over to others, individually or en masse. Not a happy or acceptable prospect. Yet, we all know people who do this. Individuals who don’t know which movie to see or even if they want to see one. Those who can’t tell you what restaurant they’d prefer or which flavor of ice cream to get them. ‘You-choose’ individuals are a separate category who have not faced the fact that - in the words of Spanish philosopher, Ortega - "Life is fired at us point-blank and we must choose." We can only avoid the bullet of victimhood if we become willing and able to evaluate all pertinent facts, feelings, opinions, beliefs and advice then translate them into the best possible choices. This is the process that will lead us to flourish as fully optimized beings engaging mind, heart and soul. The way in which we express who we really are - our standards, ethics and world view.

2. Identify Your Decision-Making Style.
Some people make decisions quickly. Others put off making them. Many don’t bother to gather sufficient information to make meaningful decisions – making them, instead, on the fly. Some gather such a great volume of facts that they get lost in the process. Some people seek advice from a favorite source or two. Some few get relevant, reliable information, consider the pros and cons, and cogently make decisions. Whatever the style, it is helpful to recognize and overcome any detrimental attitudes and patterns that inhibit the healthy, ethical or socially-oriented decision-making process. Identify what’s working and what is not. Work towards evolving a decision-making style that is fluid, fair and uncompromising. Pledge to be consistent in its use. If we establish and cultivate the most suitable process for our individual personalities, we will be better able to render decisions that will be seen as reliable, ethical as well as intellectually and socially satisfying.

3. Get Clear on The Real Decision.
Strong needs or emotions can often interfere with our best process and lead us to making erroneous decisions. Sometimes we choose to deny there’s a problem altogether or not recognize what the real problem is. Getting to the core of the issue is imperative on the way to determining the best resolution. While this may sound obvious, we often fail to unmask our real motives and proceed to making decisions based on side issues that suit our convenience or our subconscious. If we nail ourselves down to what decision we are really trying to make, we will come to more honest, appropriate decisions. To choose well, it is important to state the problem carefully, acknowledging its complexity and avoiding unwarranted assumptions and option-limiting prejudices. A decision is a means to an end. We can ask ourselves what we most want to accomplish and which of our interests, values, concerns, fears and aspirations are relevant to achieving our goal. Thinking through our objectives will give us direction. It’s also smart to factor in that what we decide today will influence our tomorrows. And that the smartest decisions are not only about what we, ultimately, elect to do but also about what we learn along the way by doing our best, most intelligent, balanced thinking.

4. Divide and Conquer.
It's not the straightforward decisions that trouble us. Rather, most of us do not welcome making hard, complex decisions that carry high stakes and bring weighty consequences. Or the ones where there's no obvious right or wrong answer. Not only do we have to spend time and thinking on a broad range of considerations, we also have to accept the fact that tough decisions expose us to the judgment of others. The latter often bringing on anxiety, indecisiveness or doubt. While there are no easy ways to make complex decisions, we can facilitate the process by breaking down issues then proceeding to analyze and come to solutions, one step at a time. We gain clarity by clearly articulating the goal of the decision to be made, writing down objectives and considering alternatives with all their attendant risks, uncertainties, tolerances, consequences and tradeoffs. Dividing big decisions into smaller segments allows us to think systematically and focus on key elements that will gradually help us assemble enough data to make smarter decisions.

5. Second Opinions are Great. Committees Can Be Killers.
Considering different perspectives from well-chosen, trusted and qualified advisers, colleagues, family or friends can truly assist in moving us towards the best solutions. However, when we use a collection of such people in an attempt to either achieve complicity - or comfort – with the decisions we’re about to make, we run the risk of being duplicitous. Additionally, for those who are highly impressionable, a majority of opinions from here and there can too easily become ‘our’ decision in the worst sense. Certainly one that is largely devoid of individual ethic, personality or aim. Instead, we can focus on creating imaginative alternatives. Either-or scenarios. Different courses of action from which we can choose – keeping in mind that the better the alternatives, the better the ultimate decision. The process of honestly facing the ramifications of each plausible decision can result in more satisfying – even exciting – outcomes. When we grapple with all the conflicting options, we give ourselves the opportunity to strike our own balance. Determine reasonable and appropriate sacrifices that might be required of us – or others. This process will also allow us to decide on and accept less-than-perfect decisions that just happen to work the best for most involved. All parts of a process that makes us feel mature, accountable and in charge of our lives.

6. Everyone Makes Mistakes.
Most often we avoid decision-making because we fear error, regret, embarrassment, judgment or loss. We falter because we know that the smartest, best, most correct decisions sometimes involve causing pain – e.g. firing someone that we really like because they are truly unsuitable for their job or our organization. In such cases, the biggest mistake is letting time or outside circumstances decide for us. Such avoidance produces a mediocre result, at best, and often leaves us with the knowledge that we could have made a smarter choice. That, instead, we let time or ‘fate’ make it for us. On the other hand, even the smartest and best people make bad decisions. All the time. They simply have learned to identify and change the outcome of a bad decision quickly and effectively. Leaders can not afford to do otherwise. Decisions – right or wrong – must be made or they are not leading. And they cannot create sustainable value on either a professional or a personal level unless they do so. If we are pledged to taking the time required and putting in the thoughtful effort towards making our best decisions - even if they turn out to be ‘mistakes’ – we can be feel good about our process. And, fix any errors promptly.

7. Vacillation and Procrastination Equal Torment.
Britain’s very decisive Margaret Thatcher once said, "Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous. You get knocked down by traffic from both sides." At the very least, dragging our decision-making feet leads to feelings of dread, worry, guilt and further avoidance. In other words, the worst thing we can do is wait until a decision is forced on or made for us. Confidence, peace of mind and an extraordinary sense of purpose result when we tackle decisions in a straightforward, reliable, flexible and timely manner. As William B. Given, Jr. said, “When possible, make the decisions now, even if action is in the future. A reviewed decision usually is better than one reached at the last moment.”

8. Get Intimate with Your Intuition.
Robert Heilbroner suggested that ‘When making a decision of minor importance I've found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves by the deep inner needs of ourselves.” He’s talking about the kind of processing that happens in a far deeper place than does logical processing. We can approach intuitive decision-making by taking note of our immediate reactions and our physical responses to things. Our bodies often contract or expand in signaling stop-go inclinations. We bristle when things don’t feel right, feel a great sense of crispness or clarity when things seem correct. Our intuition is a powerful and primary decision-making resource. When we use that part of our being, decision-making becomes not so much about deciding as about letting an inner wisdom emerge. Unfortunately, many of us have been dissuaded from using our intuition - believing more in the intellect, rationale, awareness and judgment. But, intuition offers a way to integrate and synthesize, to weigh and balance information, ultimately, leading us to make far better decisions than by using reason alone.

9. There are NO guarantees.
While we can focus on preferred outcomes, good decisions don't necessarily guarantee good results. Conversely, bad decisions don't necessarily result in bad outcomes. Sometimes people get lucky and sometimes the most thoughtful slip up. Nevertheless, faithfully aiming for good decisions does increase the odds of success and at the same time satisfies our very human desire to control the forces that affect our lives. In fact, irrespective of the results, when we continue to set about making decisions in light of good alternatives, we always make the smart decision.

10. It’s the Process That Counts.
Good decision making hinges not so much on what we decide, but in how we decide it. We can raise our odds of making a good decisions when we learn to use good process - one that gets us to the best solution with reasonable use of time, energy, money and self-control. An approach that focuses on what’s important, addresses the criteria, is logical, consistent and one that blends the analytical with the intuitive. In time, the process will become increasingly effective, resulting in our being more skilled, confident, ‘second-nature’ decision makers. In short, the toughest, more complex and important decisions we face most often have no easy or obvious solutions. They seldom affect us alone. They'll influence our families, our friends, coworkers, and countless others. Thus, growing towards making really smart decisions will be one of the most important determinants of how successfully we meet life and achieve our professional and personal goals.



Tools for Critical Choice by Top Decision Makers
United Nations Department of Cooperation for Development

Supposedly, good leaders vary their decision-making style according to the situation. They make decisions autocratically or use a degree of participation as appropriate. A participatory style should be used whenever employee commitment is required. But commitment is nearly always critical - except with trivial decisions. Also, employee commitment is much harder to obtain with confident, knowledgeable workers who scoff at arbitrary authority and do not respond unless they are involved.

Today's managers need to think more about how they can coach employees and facilitate the making of sound decisions. The leader-as-sole-decision-maker is virtually obsolete. Top executives who appear to be making unilateral decisions are, more often than not, only pulling together multiple inputs from others.

In any case, there is a choice to make - decide or lead. When the boss decides, that is not leading. When the decision is fully democratic, no leadership has occurred. It is only when someone explicitly tries to persuade the group to make a particular decision that leadership has been shown. Hence, it is more appropriate to speak of decision-making style rather than leadership style when discussing how to vary involvement in decisions.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Fast Company

A recent survey of Fortune 500 companies revealed that one of the most important qualities they look for among those they mark for leadership roles is the ability to make decisions.

How are you doing? Do you ever feel like the centipede who was told to put its best foot forward? When you're having trouble making a decision, try these six preliminary questions.

1. What is my real objective? Why must I decide?
2. What is my deadline? When must I decide?
3. Can I break the decision down into smaller parts?
4. Will this decision be final? Or can I change my mind later?
5. What risks are involved? Are they worth it?
6. What new information do I need before I decide?

Deciding to decide is often the hardest part. The above six questions will help clarify thoughts and actions so you can make the decision and take advantage of all the opportunities that come your way.



DECIDE, v.i.

To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another set.

A leaf was riven from a tree,
"I mean to fall to earth," said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
"Eastward," said he, "I now shall steer."

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: "Twere wise to change my course."

With equal power they contend.
He said: "My judgment I suspend."

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: "I've decided to fall straight."

"First thoughts are best?" That's not the moral;
Just choose your own and we'll not quarrel.

Howe'er your choice may chance to fall,
You'll have no hand in it at all.

The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce



I am President of a global communications company. I have a top management team who I’m grooming to make critical decisions about our direction and growth. As a leader, I think it’s important for me to not make decisions for these people. But, it’s very difficult to trust that this kind of executive ability exists without some demonstration. Any suggestions on how I can prepare them – and myself – for decision-making autonomy?

The most difficult phase of ‘grooming’ a management team arrives when it’s time to step back and let the members begin to prove themselves. This involves big time letting go so you can determine the level of their learning along with the success of your teaching. And, you’re absolutely right. Making decisions for them will kill the very process that will allow your organization to continue to growth and flourish in the future.

Paul C. Nutt , a professor of management at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, has been studying a question similar to yours for 19 years. In a recent interview with Fast Company, Nutt made the following observations. “Barely one in five of the executives interviewed involved staffers in the decision-making process. Most pushed their decisions through, either by persuasion (41%) or by edict (40%). Each approach is a formula for failure. Persuasion failed in 53% of the cases; edict in 65%. The typical problem isn't just that decisions lack merit. It's that staffers resent these heavy-handed tactics and thus resist or undermine bosses who resort to them. The idea of a charismatic leader, someone who gets his one idea realized by sheer force of personality, is a myth," says Nutt. "If you involve people in at least some of the steps of the process, they will become missionaries for you."

So, you prepare yourself and your management team for the long term – the future – through training and by example. Expose your executives to your process. Acquaint them with the steps you take in making powerful decisions. In other words, make sure you are executing and your staff is learning excellent decision-making skills and processes that will result in smart choices. Make sure that your staff knows what decision-making style you prefer to cultivate in your organization. What you have observed to be the most effective practices in arriving at smart decisions. e.g. It may be a collective or participative, nobody-is-as smart-as everybody style which invites people to offer information, ideas and suggestions after which the final decision is turned over to one executive who will accept full accountability. Whatever the method, encourage them to use the most efficient practices that will achieve the best results. Give them the benefit of your experience but be sure they know they can ‘shake the tree.’

Make your team aware of the benefits of the ‘park the ego at the door’ decision-making strategy. That it’s not about being ‘take-charge’ leaders who impose their decisions on the rest of the organization. (Nutt contends that all too many executives still take that tact.) You can demonstrate the dismal results of this kind of leadership - e.g., more than 130 of the decisions studied by Nutt reflected this ramrod approach. And only 42% of them were actually adopted. In comparison, a 96% success rate for decisions was achieved when – in his study only 26 out of the 356 – executives conferred with their colleagues and rethought long-term priorities. Plenty of incentive there to give people wide berth in the decision-making process.

Stress the importance of achieving teamwork around good decisions and making people aware that everyone has a stake in the success of the decision. Respect the ability of others to apply ideas, perspectives, skills and brains to the process. Make absolutely certain that whatever process they use in arriving at a decision, they are accountable. Finally, take a deep breath and get out of the way. Then, take comfort in the words of William Arthur Ward, "The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires." Your choice.


©2002 by Joyce K. Reynolds. Duplication with credits only please. Click here for easy access to all books referenced. For complimentary 20-minute Coaching session e-mail or visit Click here to send this newsletter to a colleague. Executive Business Coach on Click here to Unsubscribe. Newsletter maintained by Web Factum, LLC.