The 5 Pitfalls of Decision-Making, and How to Avoid Them

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There’s a reason for the saying, “It’s lonely at the top.” Contrary to popular belief, the hallmark of effective leadership doesn’t solely rely on the decisions a leader makes but rather how he or she sets the conditions for followers to live and learn, read and react, and decide for themselves as information becomes available.

Without the right information, decision-making, and therefore, progress, doesn’t happen. This is why it’s so important for leaders to set the “organizational guardrails” that foster a single, uniformed direction. Here are five common pitfalls to decision-making -- and how leaders can avoid them:

1. Lack of clear guidance. If leaders don’t set parameters early on, the propensity for uncertainty to develop only worsens. More so, the one-off conversations and random interruptions prevent any real work from getting done because people are unsure of their decision-making authority.

Related: Why Good Employees Make Bad Decisions

Remedy: Consider the opposite perspective. The advantage to such looming uncertainty is that it affords the very opportunity to create certainty by setting the direction. I am of the mindset that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. If you’re taking incoming mortar rounds, there is no wrong answer for what direction to move in, just so long as you move.

2. Unclear purpose. Not understanding the why behind a decision is akin to driving from Florida to Connecticut without a map. You want to know where you’re going so you can determine the best route to get there. Otherwise, you’re just wasting gas.

Remedy: Identify who or what a decision is for. Is it something that benefits the organization, the team or the individual? Will the decision impact a greater audience or just you? If it’s the latter, be sure to remove as much emotion as possible from your decision by looking at the positive outcomes it will yield (you can always find something positive).

3. Define the meeting. One way to make sure you don’t walk away from the next meeting with your eyes crossed is to know the type of meeting that will take place. There are three types of meetings that occur and each possess a different purpose with a different outcome:

  • Informative: These are meetings where updates, status reports and lessons learned are shared to build the “knowledge bridge” to the next milestone and to close the gap between silos and business functions. Remember, knowledge is not power, but sharing it is.
  • Collaborative: Once the proverbial ship has sailed (an initiative is underway), it’s time to figure out the best route to get there, and this happens through group participation. Collaborative meetings help flush out what decisions need to be made in an effort to collectively solve a business challenge.
  • Decisive: The ship's captain reels in all the swimmers from the water and says, “Don’t swim. Fix the boat instead.” In other words, decision-making meetings offer feedback to ensure your efforts are aligned with organizational priorities and ready to navigate into uncharted territory.

Related: What Bad Managers, Good Managers and Great Managers Do

4. Lack of autonomy. While decisions should be based upon their collective benefit for all (at least, in an organizational setting), how you go about making that decision should be your own. In other words, relying on other peoples’ input as a basis for your own decision-making is dependent, whereas gathering input to broaden your knowledge base so you can make your own choice is independent. The copy-and-paste approach works short term until that coworker leaves, along with your ability to solve problems.

Remedy: For the next week, record how many times you conferred with somebody over a decision and why. Were you looking for an alternative perspective to help broaden yours so you could make a more informed decision? Or were you secretly hoping for that person to make the decision for you?

5. Wrong people, wrong place. Integral to decision-making is having the power (defined as credibility and knowledge) to grab the gavel and say, “This decision makes sense. Let's do it.” Many meetings go through an iterative process simply because the wrong people are in the room.

Remedy: If you require strategic decisions then you need strategic leaders. The stated outcome of a meeting determines who should be present so the meeting’s objective can be achieved.

The more a leader can set the conditions for his or her people to make decisions the more time he or she can dedicate to strategy and business growth.

Related: 4 Fundamentals to Inspire Leadership Within Your Company