The best way to make difficult decisions as a leader

Making difficult decisions as a leader is part of the job.

  • When do you ask people to work late?
  • Who gets to go on the training course, and who doesn’t?
  • Should somebody get promoted? Why them and not the others?
  • Does somebody need to be let go for budget reasons? Who is it going to be?

There is never going to be an easy way to make difficult decisions as a leader. They are difficult decisions, because they involve people. When you make decisions that affect people, it is likely that somebody is going to be happy and somebody else is going to be upset.

What is the best way to make difficult decisions as a leader?

I’ve seen the fallout from quite a few difficult decisions. Some were handled well and others were handled like it was amateur hour at the decision-making club.

In my experience, the best way to make difficult decisions as a leader is via a three step process.

1. When making difficult decisions as a leader, have a process

When you need to make a hard choice that will affect people, have a process to do it. Have a set of criteria you will use to make the decision on the outcome.

Don’t just arbitrarily jump to an answer. If your mind is heading to a decision by instinct, ask yourself why. Are you being biased? What are the rules that you’re using to arrive at a result?

A process helps you because it can be explained to others. “I just thought that was the right way to go” isn’t going to cut it.

2. When making difficult decisions as a leader, explain yourself

You’re a leader, so you may not feel as if you need to explain yourself. Sure, maybe you don’t need to explain yourself at all. Perhaps you can do whatever you want.

When you explain to affected people how and why you’ve made your decision, it makes a big difference. People get to see behind the curtain a little and can attempt to understand the reasons why you did what you did.

Don’t get me wrong. People will listen to your reasons and some of them may still be angry, because they might not agree with them. Some decisions involve a lot of emotion and even if you have been completely rational and reasonable in your decision making, people may be too upset to realise that.

That’s OK.

3. When making difficult decisions as a leader, make it fair

You have a process. You’re going to explain yourself. Now, the kicker. Is what you’re doing fair? Something that has the most potential to create issues is the perception of unfairness.

If it seems as if your process is biased or you aren’t explaining yourself, the situation will be perceived as being unfair. This can be extremely damaging to morale and open you up to all sorts of HR issues (consult your HR professional!).

Think through the decision you are making and consider whether it seems fair. Ask a colleague to review the decision before you make it. You might think you’re being fair, but this can be subject to unconscious bias, which isn’t obvious if you don’t get another opinion.

When making difficult decisions as a leader, you will never get it “right”

You won’t get it “right”. Ever. Somebody will be upset at your decision.

However, if you have a process, you’ve been transparent about what you’re doing and you have tried your best to make it fair, then you have done a reasonable job.

Don’t expect everybody to like your decision. That’s life, and everyone has a different perspective. Perhaps you made the wrong decision? You may not know until a few months down the track. But that’s OK, because you can’t know everything — you’ll know for next time.

Have a process, explain yourself and make it fair. Then move on.

Originally published at on October 12, 2016.