Difficult decisions are part of being a leader, managing a team, or running a business. Their difficulty often leads to a sense of urgency: You’re overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of the choice you need to make, so you either procrastinate or you rush through it. Both options are bad, but ripping the proverbial Band-Aid off can be worse.
Instead, the smarter approach making difficult decisions is to break down the process into manageable steps that you can tackle over time–and intentionally–rather than all at once. Here’s how.
Step 1: Gather The Facts (All Of Them)
You may think you know enough to make an informed decision, but if the difficulty of choice at hand is stressing you out, you may not have as much intel as you think you do. Facts can either change or reinforce your decision. They provide sound rationale that you may need later when explaining your choice.
So before you rush to make a call on a tough issue, figure out exactly what you need to know: Which contingencies should you account for? What bits of information would you point to should you have to defend your decision later on? Don’t let this step bog down your process, though–a quest for enough data can lead to information overload. So figure out what you need to know, then move on.
Step 2: Give Yourself Time And Space
This may feel like a luxury you don’t have, and sometimes it is. But at a minimum, sleep on it. You can usually buy yourself 12–24 hours to mull over even the most pressing issue.
Process what you’ve learned. Listen to your gut. The older I get, the more I value my instincts. Sure, this comes with 20 years of experience, but I’ve found that I often know the answer from the beginning. I just don’t always want to accept it. Once I quiet down and start listening, I always find my path forward. I don’t always like it, but I know that being a leader means the role isn’t about me.
If nothing else, giving yourself even a little time to process the choice you’re planning to make lets you fully own the decision, this way you can help others through it later.
Step 3: Actually Make The Decision
Leaders under pressure often rush directly to this step, skipping over the first two, in the name of “decisiveness.” And it’s no wonder why. As Harvard Business Review put it last year, “Good CEOs realize that a wrong decision may be better than no decision at all.” And indeed, every manager’s choices, especially the hard ones, won’t always be popular. That’s a hard reality of leadership, but it’s no excuse for undue haste.
Once you’ve analyzed the facts and taken some time to process them, you’ll hopefully be more comfortable with the knowledge that your call might not be the right one. Should you find out later that you made the wrong decision, accept it, make the appropriate changes, and move forward.
Step 4: Follow Through With An Action Plan
You’ve made the decision, but your job isn’t done. You need a plan as you work through the communication process. Decisiveness is only part of your job, no matter how difficult the choice; the success or failure of the decision all hinges on how you implement it.
As obvious as it sounds, this is easy to miss when you’re in a hurry. Details, context, and logistics matter because you’re likely dealing with sensitive topics that can profoundly impact others. Don’t take that lightly. Slow down and assemble a plan to make sure no stone is left unturned, and that you minimize the damage or impact on your team. This can also give you the confidence to handle difficult situations and emotional conversations–and you’ll need that fortitude to weather any headwinds that follow the choice you’ve just made. Hopefully when it’s over and you reflect back, you won’t have regrets about something you forgot to account for or address.
And no matter how it goes, take the time to learn from both your mistakes and what went well. As it happens, that takes time, too.
Julie Koepsell is the managing director of the digital agency Mirum.