Great leaders are decisive. They consider risks — analytically and intuitively — and are able to make important decisions without costly delay. In fact, decisiveness is a critical measure of executive effectiveness. As with all strengths, however, decisiveness can be used improperly and become a weakness, even a fatal one. This is likely to happen when major business issues and risks are presented.
Here’s the scenario. A well respected, successful leader prides herself on making timely, impactful decisions. Then a proposal is presented where the choice made will decide the future of the company. There is great opportunity for rapid growth if a decision to move ahead is successful. But, if the initiative proposed is not successful, there is a real likelihood that the company will suffer large losses and possibly even be put up for sale or go out of business. The executive’s strong gut choice is to move forward, but she is not sure. She knows she will be risking employee jobs and shareholder value. While there is no real deadline for a decision, she feels enormous pressure, based on reputation and personality, to make one within a month. She seeks the advice of several close confidants who encourage her to proceed with the initiative. Feeling anxiety, she listens to them and announces her intentions to her Board which, based on her stellar track record, approves her decision.
The author of a recent HBR blog piece, How Anxiety Can Lead Your Decisions Astray, must have had scenarios just like this in mind. She cites studies showing that people in a state of anxiety are more likely to seek advice if offered and, most importantly, are significantly more likely to follow the advice given. The inescapable conclusion from these studies is that anxiety impairs judgment.
Leaders should not make important decisions when their judgement is impaired by anxiety. Instead, they need to understand their limitations and not respond to anxiety by forcing premature decisions. They should carefully consider all options, seek advice from professional advisors as well as colleagues and weigh the pros and cons for as long as it takes to make a considered choice that is supported by the broader leadership team. There will be three major benefits form this approach. First, there is a much stronger likelihood that the correct decision will be made with the help of a diverse group considering all facets of the issue. Second, because the decision will be owned by the full team, there will be a strong team commitment to make it successful. Third, if problems do arise, they will not be attributed to just a single leader. Instead, the full team will own the results and be highly motivated to collaborate on corrective action.