Making Tough Decisions

By Dr. Brian Reuben

Executives, even owners of small businesses many times have to make tough decisions to keep the business on track. It’s just the way the job is. But the toughest of decisions comes in the dark areas. These are cases where you and your team mine all the data you can, and do all the analysis you can yet the situation seems inconclusive.

For example, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s choice to defile the ultimatum of the people who kidnapped her 83 year old mother with a demand that she resign from her position as the Finance Minister in Nigeria and sign their fraudulent contract papers or have her mother executed was a tough choice. Think about it, how do you risk the execution of your mother by choosing to fight corruption? If she dies, will you be able to forgive yourself? Can you stand public condemnation in exchange for being a corruption warlord? Under such circumstances it’s easy to become paralyzed and seek any available route. But it is your responsibility as a leader to judge the situation fairly and take the right decision. Which again begs the question of which decision is right?

black and yellow chess pieces

Your judgment is critical in moving the organisation forward. Yet your judgment could be limited by your thinking, feelings, experience, imagination, and character.  

Through history leaders have found themselves in situations where they must make tough choices, decisions that define the life and destiny of people whether as a large group or small group. Imagine a decision to go to war or fire a key executive for corruption. 

But by relying on the principles I intend to discuss here you can improve your chances of making better informed and effective decisions every time even with incomplete, unclear data, divided opinions and different interest.

Effective executives rely on these principles when tough decisions must be made for better decisions and I’m sure it will help you and your team in navigating through tough decisions.

When next you have a tough decision to make, don’t get upset, relax and use the following principles:

  1. Every decision has a net consequence
  2. Your office is defined by your core obligations
  3. Effective decisions must take cognisance of the world as it is
  4. Every organisation must stay true to its identity
  5. Your choices will have outcomes 

Let’s review them one after another.

  1. Every decision has a net consequence

You have to understand that every decision carries a real world effect. So difficult questions are ever hardly resolved in a flash of intuition. So you need to thoroughly and analytically consider all courses of action available to you in terms of real life human consequences of each option.

Let go of your presumptions, and get your team together and list all possible options, considering who will be helped or hurt, short term and long term by every option possible. This is not the same as cost benefit analysis, so you should take a broad, deep, concrete, imaginative, and objective look at the full impact of your choices.

Indeed it is difficult to predict with accuracy the full impact of any choice but what’s important is that you walk from the position of love, see others the way you see yourself. Knowing that your decision on gray issues carry real life consequences which affects the lives of people and communities, you want to focus on the picture and the greater good even when you and maybe others must suffer immediate pain. So it’s important to take the time to open your mind, assemble the right team, and analyze your options through the lens of love.

2. Your office is defined by your core obligations

Your position as a business leader, owner or manager, is defined by your obligations. You are obligated to both shareholders and other stakeholders in your business. But besides this is our moral responsibility to safeguard and respect the lives, rights, and dignity of our fellow men and women. All of us owe this to our world and ourselves.

When you have a hard call to make, step out of your comfort zone, put yourself in the shoes of others especially the ones likely to be affected by your decision. How would you feel in their position? How would you react if someone else were to make this decision about someone related to you? How would you want to be treated? What would you see as fair? What rights would you believe you had? What would you consider to be hateful? You might speak directly to the people who will be affected by your decision, or find someone in your team to fish out that information.

Business school classes, teach that your core responsibility is your company but you’ll need to understand that this is a broad statement that includes the environment, workers, government, customers and the community the company or business serves. You have serious obligations to everyone simply because you are a human being. When you face a gray-area decision, you have to think—long, hard, and personally—about which of these duties stands at the head of the line.

3. Effective decisions must take cognisance of the world as it is

American President, Donald Trump stated that success is knowing how the world works. He’s right! You need to consider the world as it is not as it is in Nollywood or how you wish it were. Take a real, pragmatic look at your issue. If you want to make a decision that will empower your team, a department, or your entire business to move through a gray area responsibly and successfully, then you will have to consider your options in the light of how the world works.

Great plans can turn out badly, and bad plans sometimes work. Popular opinions and legacy ideas could be wrong. The world is dynamic, you don’t control everything. You can hardly have all the freedom and resources you need. So you must often make painful choices. Your people will pursue their own agendas, skillfully or clumsily, except they are persuaded to do otherwise.

That is why, after considering consequences and duties, you need to think about how things really work. What are the possible solutions to your problem, which is most likely to work? Which is most resilient? And how resilient and flexible are you?

4. Every Organization must stay true to its identity

Any choice that contradicts the strategic position of your organization in the long run is a bad one no matter how compelling it may look. When in 2010 MySpace management choose to accept $900 million for a three year advertising deal from Google, the signed their own corporate demise for only $900 million! When they did their goal shifted from satisfying their over forty million unique monthly visitors to satisfying their advertisers of which Google was chief. They basically doubled the ads on their site, which soon became an eyesore, and created a miserable experience for users. The result? The users headed to Facebook and the advertisers went with them!

So while the deal put $900 million in their account and probably made shareholders happy, they had compromised their competitive position and ignored their unique selling proposition. By 2011, Myspace was sold for $35 million! That’s a company valued at $12 billion as at 2007! Where did Myspace miss it? They choose a path not consistent with who they really were. Myspace positioned itself as a social media platform, not an advert platform. Advertising revenue depended on people socializing on the platform. So any decision that could hamper that service was a bad one.

So when ‘opportunities’ show up, be sure they are real opportunities and not traps. Your organization will pay a steep price for bad choices, jobs may be lost, profit may be affected, and relationships may be hurt. You must therefore understand and respect your positioning in the industry and ensure that decisions you have to make respect that position.

5. Your choices lead to outcomes

Every choice has an outcome and sometimes the outcomes can spill out of control. The outcome of a decision can destroy a hundred year’s effort. So in making tough choices, you will have to make decisions you can live with. If you are not convinced that your choice is for the greater good, take a step back!

That goes to say that there is no one-minute decision. Making the right choices in difficult situations require training, it requires a mindset. A mind trained to perceive a bigger picture; awareness to sense what is not obvious and walk in the grey areas of life with accuracy.

That also requires strength, the strength to rise above your interest and see yourself in others, to say ‘yes’ to a choice which may even hurt you personally and to walk away when you have to.

This is not something you develop in a day, but intentional consistency at doing what is right, knowing first that it’s possible to make the right choices in the face of complex uncertainties! 

Dr Brian Reuben is one of the most sought after thought leaders on the subject of Strategy in Nigeria. He speaks at business events globally. He has written over 150 articles and facilitated over 200 strategy training programs for senior executives in diverse industries. He has advised and mentored senior executives in several organisations including Africa-Reinsurance Corporation, Savile Energy Luxembourg, Department of Petroleum Resources, Trident Energy United Kingdom, BusinessDay, and Dolphin Telecom among others.

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