Do you make decisions quickly and confidently, or do you agonize over different scenarios while others wait on you, sometimes missing chances to move forward on important work? Maybe you make one impulsive decision after another, only to keep changing your mind, and leave everyone around you spinning. Effective decision-making is one of the key skills that sets apart the best CEOs and leaders from the rest, but effective decision-making doesn’t necessarily mean making the right decisions all the time.
Studies show that the most effective CEOs have the courage to make decisions and own the consequences, while adjusting as needed. Still, nothing about making good decisions is easy, and when your decisions affect others, feeling a large degree of anxiety while making them is completely normal and appropriate. As Ben Horowitz, author of The Hard Thing about Hard Things says, “Great CEOs face the pain. They deal with the sleepless nights, the cold sweats.” Another great quote from this book is, “By far the most difficult skill I learned as CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology.” If you want to make better decisions and improve your effectiveness in business or personally, it can be useful to learn how to manage your anxiety when making critical decisions or handling any challenging situation.
The key to managing anxiety is clearly understanding that no matter how smart you are, and no matter how much effort you put forth, you cannot entirely control any outcome. This can be a hard pill to swallow, but it provides an incredibly important perspective. If you know you can’t control the outcome, you can begin to consider how to handle all outcomes, including the ones you want to avoid.
One of my favorite books on managing anxiety is by Susan Jeffers, “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway”. In her book Susan shares that all fear is based on the thinking process: “I won’t be able to handle it if X happens”. One of the exercises she recommends in this book is changing your thinking around what you fear most to instead say: “If X happens, this is how I will handle it”.
When I work with clients who are struggling with important decisions, I use a decision-making tool that allows them to look at best, worst, and probable outcomes of various decisions. One of the most compelling parts of this tool is looking at the worst possible outcome of each option you consider and then asking yourself how you will learn or benefit IF that horrible outcome comes to pass. As you walk through the thinking process, you can feel your body relaxing, your heart calming and your mind getting optimistically focused.
Here is an example:
Sam wasn’t sure whether to stay in his current job, which wasn’t fulfilling but offered good benefits and provided a decent income, or if he should try finding a new job that he could feel more engaged with. His decision-making chart looked like this:
|Option||Best Case Outcome||Most Probable Outcome||Worst Case Outcome||How I will learn / benefit even if the worst-case outcome happens|
|Stay in current job||I’d find a way to make my current job more interesting and get the best of all worlds.||I’d probably continue to be bored at work, but I’d have good friends and a steady paycheck with benefits.||I’ll get so bored I’ll start under-performing and eventually get fired.||I’ll be forced to look for a new job and won’t have any regrets because there wouldn’t have been a choice.|
|Find new job||I’ll find something that makes me love every day that I go to work, and has great people, new friends, an even better salary and benefits.||The new job will probably have many interesting things about it but may also have challenges I didn’t expect.||The new job looks great at first but when I get there, I find I hate it – and it’s far worse than my current situation.||I’ll have to look for a new job again or come back to this company and see if they would rehire me, which would be embarrassing.|
|Ask boss about shifting role / responsibilities at current job||I get a promotion and do something more fun and interesting with a better salary and keep the benefits and the friends I have.||We make some shifts to my job in an attempt to keep me engaged but over time I find I am still bored and frustrated.||Boss is frustrated with my complaining and gives me feedback that I’m not performing all that well anyway and fires me.||I’ll be forced to look for a new job….|
Mental resilience isn’t as much about “toughing out” tortuous situations as finding the positive opportunity in challenges. In the example above, Sam realized that in just about every scenario he was considering, the worst-case outcome put him in a situation of seeking a job, and he realized that if he felt confident in his ability to look for a new job, that he would be better equipped to make any of the choices.
Ultimately, Sam chose to buy himself some time and focus on building his network and job seeking skills. He reached out to old friends and colleagues, not to ask for job leads, but to strengthen relationships and see how their jobs were going. He worked on his resume and sent it out in response to several job openings, just to see if he could get an interview. And he went on two job interviews, just to have the experience of interviewing. He even got one job offer through this process, but declined it because ultimately it didn’t feel like a good fit.
Working on his “building my job-seeking skills” project changed several things about Sam’s situation:
- He had to get more efficient with his regular work to make time for the extra work, and the challenge of improving his productivity to make this time got him more engaged in his work and improved his performance in his current role.
- He built more confidence in his ability to find a new job, which made him less anxious about the “worst-case outcome” of any of his decisions and helped him get the courage to discuss new roles/responsibilities with his boss.
- He got more clarity on his strengths and passions from the preparation he had done for his interviews, which helped him prepare for his conversation with his boss. He also came up with some of his own ideas about how he could add more value in his current organization.
- His boss was impressed by the recent surge in Sam’s productivity and appreciated his initiative in coming up with new ideas related to adding value to the organization. As a result, he worked with Sam to create a new role for him that was more interesting, and included a salary increase.
In a debriefing session, one key lesson Sam took away from this process was that by preparing himself for the worst possible outcomes of his decisions, he improved the chances of a better option. He reflected, “Ultimately, I ended up with the best-case outcome of my third option, but if I hadn’t gone through this process and went directly to that conversation with my boss, I would have handled it a lot differently. I would have shown up as more of a complainer, and my boss would not have been as willing to work with me. The preparation process taught me how to talk clearly about my strengths. I came to understand that companies care about the value you offer more than how you are feeling on a day-to-day basis. They expect you to take the initiative to improve your own situation instead of waiting around for them to give you more engaging work. My shift in attitude is really what helped me achieve the promotion, and that would not have happened without doing the work.”
Decision points are always stressful, and most people make decisions by trying to escape the worst outcomes. But facing those outcomes, at least in your mind, and discovering the opportunities in them, can be incredibly empowering while also increasing your chances of success.
We will be exploring the decision-making process using the exercise above in our upcoming Anxiety & Decision-Making virtual power lunch workshop on September 22, 2021. This 30-minute workshop is free and will uncover the underlying words of your anxiety and how they affect your decision-making.
Please click here to register for this free workshop.
Additionally, if this sounds like a familiar theme within your team or organization, I would love to hear from you and welcome your comments and feedback. You can reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 714-931-2133.