Management Hard decisions are full of experience

Ask Questions, Repeat The Hard Parts, and Listen

One of my least favorite moments as a leader, specifically your leader, is when you ask me to make the decision.

First, yes, I know it’s my job to make these decisions, especially the complicated and high-risk ones.

Second, it’s true I’ve acquired ample experience over the last thirty years, and the chance I can make informed decisions on this particular topic is high. In the case it’s a novel decision, related experience probably gives me an excellent chance to make a prompt and quality gut-feel decision.

Third, and finally, I am 100% clear when a decision is mine and only mine to make.

These three qualifications do not change my discomfort, no… disappointment when you ask me to decide. Before I explain why I’m disappointed, I’ll explain three tactics I will take that might get you to decide.

ASK QUESTIONS. Let’s start by setting some ground rules for this decision you are bringing to me. First, you’ve already decided you can’t make it because of complexity, experience, risk, or straight-up fear. Second, it is a hard decision. Just a couple minutes into your pitch, I can tell why you’re bringing this to me — it’s a big, not a little, decision.

I will ask you questions regardless of my experience, thoughts, and first impressions regarding this decision. Lots of them. These are honest; I don’t know; please educate me on the situation, and I’ve got a bunch of them. My immediate goal with these questions is to educate myself regarding these decisions. See, if it were trivial, low risk, or obvious to decide, you would not need me. You would’ve made it.

My second goal, and it happens more than you’d think, is that you make the decision. It doesn’t always sound like you decided as we go back and forth; it often sounds like:

“… and because of that critical architectural change in June, the performance has steadily decreased. It’s time to refactor the whole damned thing, right?”

To which I say, “Right.”

You might think I am making the decision, you might think I am giving you permission to refactor the whole damned thing, but what has occurred in this interaction is via our back and forth, you’ve made your case, and you proposed your next steps to which I said, “Right.”

You decided. Not me.

I served an essential role in this exchange. I did tease out the hopefully tricky bits of the decision. I also pointed out some nuanced political people’s pros and cons that we hadn’t considered but didn’t change the decision calculus. Yeah, I tasted the soup, but you decided.

It doesn’t always go this easily.

REPEAT THE HARD PARTS. Our question and answer session comes to a close, and we’re still staring at that decision. You might suspect the decision but are not yet confident in your reasoning. You might not be close to a decision. Whatever the situation, we don’t have a decision yet.

My next strategy. Repeat the complex parts of the problem. There are two reasons I’m doing this. First, if this were an easy and uncomplicated decision, you would’ve already made it. There is intricate detail to be understood here, and humans, especially when stressed, are fantastic at glossing over intricate details, so I will repeat any part that I feel might need more clarification. Barring that, I’ll repeat what I consider critical parts of this decision.

Second, I’m stalling for time. I still really want you to decide. It happens less than during question and answer time, but frequently when I clarify a missing detail or restate a core thesis, you decide, “It’s time to refactor the whole damned thing, right?”

To which I say, “Right.”

LISTEN. Having done this decision thing for a long time, at scale, and with everyone — everyone — staring at me waiting for a critical decision, there’s a good chance when you bring me your decision that I’ve seen it before. If I haven’t seen this precise decision before, I’ve seen enough like it to begin with a good understanding of the type of decision, its constituent parts, and the likely consequences of making a good or bad decision.

With all this, I still don’t want to decide. I want to listen.

This is how I listen. I bury all of my experiences with similar decisions, I clearly hear the urgency in your voice, and I understand and will acknowledge it. Still, I don’t react emotionally to it, and I clear my head and listen.

This mindset is equal parts for you and me. I want to approach this situation as a neutral blank slate initially. This is how I can ask questions thoughtfully. Yes, I know the humans involved and the history, but I am intensely curious. Yes, there are folks at fault, emotions running high, and mistakes were made. We’ll revisit all that at the right time, but not now… now we seek the joy of understanding.

For you, I want you to see me as support. I want to let the frenetic energy out of this situation, and I want us to find the facts. I need you to feel that we’re partners in figuring this out, even though my preference is you decide.

In an age where it’s become increasingly acceptable to sit at your laptop during a meeting or to check your phone mid-conversation, the act of someone giving you their full attention is precious. They are looking straight at you, clearly hearing every word, and then they say something, and it’s completely clear, “There is nothing else going on here except the two of us discussing this situation.”

Humans do their best work when they feel safe and supported. There is a contingent of humans who believe they do their best work when the stakes are high, everyone is yelling, and the deadline is imminent. This is called “surviving,” while survival is fun, it’s not good work.

So, I listen. I ask questions, and I listen to your answers. I repeat the hard parts, and I watch you listen to me. For the record, these moments are when I most feel like a leader.

So You Decide (Whew)

So you decide, and we eventually make one of three discoveries:

  1. It was a good decision. What we expected to occur occurred. No surprises.
  2. It was a bad decision. What we expected to occur did not. More work.
  3. You don’t yet know the consequence of the decision. In my world, this means it’s a poor decision, still waiting to become good.

Yes, ideally, you want to make more good than bad decisions. Yes, when we discover this was a bad decision, there is additional work, additional consequences, and often a sense of regret. You might even wonder, Why didn’t you decide, Rands?

Hard decisions are full of experience. Full of it. You’ve got everything that transpired before the decision was required. Then there’s the crystalizing realization a change must be made, and a hard decision is necessary to enact that change. Then we’ve got all the work we do to make the decision. That’s pressure, people, debate, data, feelings, agenda, and politics. We’re packing months of experience into a short, intense period. Finally, and hopefully, there’s the moment when I convince you to decide. That is your decision, and I trust you to make it.

Even though I can make this decision, I spent a good chunk of time convincing you to because the experience you will gain by being accountable for this hard decision vastly outweighs the experience when I decide.

Earlier in this piece, I wrote I was disappointed when you asked me to decide. I’m not disappointed in you; I’m disappointed with myself. See, my primary job as your leader is to give you the skills and experience I’ve gained over the years. If I cannot guide you toward making the decision, I’m reminded I’ve not yet achieved my primary goal in our professional relationship.

My job is to teach you not to need me.

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4 Responses

  1. Outstanding!

  2. Nathan 11 months ago

    I think there’s another branch in this tree that you did not cover (probably intentionally) but which is relevant: I’m coming to you for a decision not because I’m afraid to make the decision but because I don’t have the clout to make it stick. I’m not trying to force you to decide, I’m trying to convince you that the decision I’ve already made is in fact the one we should go with.

    When I say “we should just refactor the whole file” and you say “right”, this means I get to go refactor the file, which is what I wanted to do in the first place but I needed firepower to go do it.

    Why is this important? Because I believe it’s a sign of a (mildly or severely) dysfunctional organization. I will only not need you to the extent that I am empowered to make decisions without you. If I’m not, I will continue to bring you solutions to sign off on.