On Being Decisive

An old mentor of mine who had experienced many challenging circumstances as a chief executive officer lived by the credo on being decisive: He would say, “Be right, be wrong, but never be in doubt… Because then they really have you.”

I have seen more senior managers fail in being effective in their roles by being too cautious than by being decisive and action oriented.

I have also often observed that it is the case that within an organisation staff and managers value decisiveness from their boss more than many other qualities. Usually this is because the decisive manager instills confidence in their team by demonstrating that they:

  • Understand the goal they are aiming for;
  • Have a strategy to get there;
  • Can judge the opportunities and risks involved; and
  • Will lead the team where they need to go.

On the other hand the indecisive manager inflicts discouragement on their team by showing:indecision

  • Confusion as to the direction of travel;
  • Doubt as to who should pursue what roles;
  • Lack of commitment to seeing it through; and
  • Poor problem solving capacity.

Decisiveness should not be equated with risky or precipitous behaviour. It is an attribute that reflects ability to analyse a set of circumstances, often from experience but sometimes from an innate sense of good judgement, and to weigh up the competing arguments and optional responses to determine a good and constructive action plan to achieve the best result.

Indecision and its consequences

Indecision is often the product ofa  fear of making a “wrong” decision that will produce negative consequences for oneself or for others who are depending on the decision. This reticence can be mild or extreme. In fact the fear of making serious decisions has been elevated to a formal condition, called decidophobia.

Indecision is not always a product of some irrational fear. Quite often it is the result of normal human frailties which prevent the right level of emotional or intellectual application kicking in when it is most needed. These circumstances give rise to such classic conditions as;

  • Paralysis by analysisbeing decisive
  • Rigor mortis by risk aversion
  • Persistent Procrastination
  • Death by Consultation
  • “Even if it is broken , we probably shouldn’t fix it”


How do we recognise decisive leaders/managers?

Decisive managers are usually readily identifiable by how their teams describe them.

He’s the sort of guy you want as your team leader when things get tough.”

The good hing about her is that she is someone who, having made a decision, sticks with it instead of being blown off course by the slightest change in the wind.”

You always know that if you go to them with a problem to will come away with good advice and direction on how to tackle it.”

Decisive managers tend to get labelled as people who get things done.

Management was, is, and always will be the same thing: The art of getting things done. And to get things done, managers must act themselves and mobilize collective action on the part of others.” R.G. Eccles , & N. Nohria, P. 32. Beyond the hype. Harvard Business School Press, 1992.

The term decisiveness has also come to be associated with an element of timeliness. In other words decisive managers understand and have a strong sense of the imperative of making decisions in the right timeframe. Often this is equated to a sense of urgency to resolve a pressing situation.

Are there Dangers in being too decisive?

It is often said that making good decisions is better than making bad decisions – but making no decisions is the worst option.

yesminister2The greatest caveat on the exhortation to be a decisive leader is that, on balance, your decisions need to be good decisions. Knowing in advance that you have done everything necessary to give your decisions their best chance of success or better still to absolutely assure their success, is an important part of the discipline of being a decisive manager. Even when you think you have all the bases covered there is nothing more chilling than to have a colleague congratulate you on making what became an iconic phrase from the “Yes Minister” series – “a courageous decision.”

Hence an integral part of decisive determinations is having assessed all the likely consequences and ensured that there is a suitable implementation strategy to deal with any unintended outcomes.

Good leaders shouldn’t be afraid to make a wrong decision now and then – as long as its consequences are manageable. Decision paralysis caused by concern about making a wrong choices will impede the growth of potentially good managers, and in some cases is institutionalise by poor organisational culture that creates an atmosphere of accusation and guilt around daring to decide, rather than encouraging learning from mistakes.

The simple complexity of decision making

At its simplest, decision making is about making choices between alternative courses of action to address a given set of circumstances. One of those choices is not to do anything!

The complexity arises when we add the variable human factors of emotion, intelligence and judgement. No two human beings approach the same set of circumstances with exactly the same mindset and values focus. Our individual ability to read the environment, perceive the critical influences and make well balanced decisions relies on our personal background, training, experience, maturity, exposure to problem solving models and the influence of our peers, subordinates and bosses.

Above all, success relies on the confidence we have in ourselves to find the best solution.

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