How to Make Leadership Decisions in Times of Uncertainty: Six Steps to Success: Part One
By Quang Le, CEO, Le Transformations
All decisions involve some degree of uncertainty. We make decisions on a myriad of things assuming they will work out. We marry someone thinking it will last. We invest in a stock, thinking it will do well. Business decisions are no different. What has changed recently is the speed of change we are experiencing as crises collide and uncertainty swirls.
Indeed, we live in a time where constant and unforeseen change is unprecedented. Uncertainty will be a way of life as the speed and extent of change created by technology, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, geopolitical strife, supply chain disruptions, and climate change directly impact our globally interconnected organizations. Add to this the lingering effects of the pandemic, in which leaders need to be sensitive to the evolving demands of employees and adjust corporate culture to ensure their survival and support positive transformation.
At some point, all leaders must make critical, turning-point decisions for their organizations. But when uncertainty is ubiquitous, and strategy is undefined, it’s more challenging to weigh pertinent information and arrive at prudent decisions; in fact, short-sightedness can lead to a knee-jerk and perilous approach. Not a great formula when so much is at stake.
Six Steps to Success
So, what’s a leader to do? How can you optimize your success by making sound decisions if uncertainty pervades your workplace? With this in mind, we offer six leadership checkpoints, starting with the first three steps in Part One of this series, to be followed by the second three steps in Part Two:
Step 1: Look Before You Leap.
First, it’s important not to yield to temptation and make a hasty move. Many leaders confuse sound decision-making with the act of simply making the call, thinking this alone demonstrates leadership. Not really. Effective leaders must guide their teams and organizations to honestly tackle significant challenges and move forward. They need to look at the big picture, analyze downstream impacts, and weigh trade-offs.
How many of us have sat in on Board, leadership team, or project meetings where the leader makes a decision that appears to come out of nowhere? Or the decision seems half-baked at best. Or worse, the decision may have disastrous downstream effects.
The good news is that this scenario can be prevented with a sound strategic plan that involves initial staff buy-in and ongoing checks and balances.
Step 2: Ask Your Ego to Sit This One Out.
Ego always plays a role in decision-making. Your ego supports your perception of self-esteem and self-worth (Jones, 2016) and gives you a sense of security. When we make decisions with these two “selfies,” we are trying to satisfy our desires to feel good about ourselves (self-esteem) and to be respected (self-worth) (Jones, 2016). But when you put your ego over the needs of the business, you are satisfying your internal need, not the business need. As a coach, I see this all the time with really good leaders -- their egos get in the way of their decision-making abilities. Leaders often feel they must have the answers to everything.
“Knowing everything” is not what makes you a great or even a competent leader. Have you ever seen a job description for a C-suite role that says, “Leader must know everything?” Rather, contemporary leadership posts emphasize skills such as:
“develop, lead, and execute strategy for the organization”
“drive change within the organization through robust financial analysis and strong business partnerships”
“translate the organization’s strategic and tactical business plans into HR and operational plans”
Effective leaders understand their strengths and weaknesses. They leverage their strengths in helpful ways and seek support for their weaknesses. Being able to say you’re not sure about how to proceed is part of setting your ego aside. Specifically, it means knowing what to ask for and how to ask for it. For example: “We are entering into some big unknowns. I don’t have all the answers yet because there’s much to explore. We need to work as a team if we are to succeed.”
Step 3: Assess the Degree of Uncertainty.
Collins Dictionary (2020) defines uncertainty as “a state of doubt about the future or about what is the right thing to do.” While this definition infers that uncertainty is a state of not knowing, we probably know more than we think. Therefore, working through uncertainty is an exercise to obtain more information with which to make a more informed decision.
We can increase knowledge and predictability by asking two helpful questions (Bennett & Lemoine, 2014):
Knowledge question: How much do you know about the situation?
Predictability question: How well can you predict what’s going to happen?
For example, let’s say you experience an energy drain that makes you feel tired, and simple tasks take longer. How can you respond? Apply the knowledge question: How much do you know about the situation? Probably a lot: it happens daily around the same time; your work productivity starts to slow down; you become drowsy. And if you take a break, you typically “snap out of the lethargy fog” and refocus on the work at hand. Apply the predictability question: How well can you predict what’s going to happen? Quite a lot: it usually happens around 3 p.m.; it happens three hours after lunch.
So now what? Here’s where you recognize that your issue involves more than yourself. It may actually include a doctor and/or dietician. At this point, you can set your ego aside and recognize that you need more support. At work, there are likely many available resources that are equipped to provide timely and value-added input. These resources can be colleagues, team members, staff, or subject matter experts in the industry or field. Sharing the problem with them and defining your goal is how to work through uncertainty. As a leader, your job is to assemble the team to tackle the problem. “Knowing everything” is not what makes you a great or even a competent leader.
Stay tuned for Steps 4–6 in Part Two!
Decision Making for Dummies by Dawna Jones, 2016. Harvard Business Review: What VUCA Really Means for You by Nathan Bennett & G. James Lemoine, 2014
About Le Transformations. Le Transformations (LETS), a pioneer in the field of change leadership, is a leading change strategy consulting firm based in Washington, DC, with clients worldwide. LETS helps leaders navigate disruptive change and engage staff. It specializes in industries that are most vulnerable in the new normal, including healthcare, manufacturing, retail, hospitality, automotive/transportation, and real estate. LETS' approach features a blending of technology, processes, staff, and leadership, with a particular focus on culture. Leadership change coaching is a key part of LETS' services. For more information, visit www.LeTransformations.com.