Do you struggle to make decisions? Making decisions can be hard, especially if like me, you like to draw on lots of facts and figures and prefer to have plenty of information to hand to help in the decision-making process. But what causes indecision and can you really learn how to make difficult decisions more easily? Is it really possible for you to improve your decision-making skills and learn how to make good decisions?
There isn’t always lots of information available and what’s more, when it comes to some decisions, no matter how much information you have, ultimately the decision is yours and yours alone to make. Not to mention, more information can actually lead to more confusion and even analysis paralysis, a state in which you become overwhelmed by the volume of information available leading to being stuck in a state of inertia and making no decision at all.
So, how do you avoid this analysis paralysis? And why is decision-making so hard sometimes? What causes indecision in the first place and how can you improve your decision-making skills and learn how to make hard decisions with ease?
In this post, we’ll explore all things decision-making. The topics covered are below.
Click to jump to a section:
- Why are decision-making skills important?
- Why is it hard to make decisions?
- The Different decision-making styles
- What skills are needed for good decision making
- How to make difficult decisions more easily
Why are decision-making skills important?
We all make hundreds, if not thousands of decisions every day. Many of these are personal, life decisions that affect only us, some that we don’t even think about. They can be small decisions like what to have for breakfast or what to wear or much bigger life decisions. For example, where to go to University, where to live, how to deal with a challenging situation in your relationship, whether or not to accept a job offer, the list goes on.
Clearly, from a life perspective, it’s important to be able to make good decisions effectively. And given the impact of some of these decisions, it’s important to know how to make difficult decisions.
But beyond your own life, there are plenty of other reasons why you might want to sharpen your decision-making skills.
Beyond the personal
Decision-making is a critical skill for work. Especially for those in leadership roles. When you’re in a position of management or leadership, you’re responsible for making lots of decisions every day. These decisions will have an impact on your team, your companies bottom line, and your long-term success as a leader. As a result, your ability to make good decisions is important. So you need to know how to make difficult decisions since this will have a direct impact on your career.
The more senior you become, the more decisions you’ll have to make. Decisions that have long-term consequences and impact more people. Even decisions that have a greater risk.
So, if you want to be a great leader now or in the future, then you need to understand decision-making and improve your skills in this area. Even if you choose to work for yourself, good decision-making is still critical.
If you want to grow your business and build a team, you’ll be tasked with making lots of tough decisions along the way. And even running a business solo will require you to make hard decisions on your own.
Why is it hard to make decisions?
Many factors influence how difficult a decision is to make. These can be thought of as decision-making style criteria because the answers to these questions will determine the best style to use when making the decision.
- Who will be impacted by the decision?
- How many people will be impacted?
- How important is the decision from a cost perspective?
- What’s the impact of a bad decision?
- What are the long-term consequences of the decision?
- How much time do you have to make the decision?
- What bias or beliefs do you have that could influence your decision-making?
- How complex is the decision being made?
- What parties need to be involved in the decision-making process?
- What Information is available to help in the decision-making process?
As you can see, there are lots of things to consider. And these factors affect not only leadership decisions in the workplace but also personal decisions.
Another aspect of decision-making is decision-making style. While someone’s personality can influence which decision-making style they prefer, the two are separate and anyone can choose to use any decision-making style that’s most appropriate for the situation.
If you want to know how to make difficult decisions, then understanding the different decisions making styles is critical.
The Different decision-making styles
Different decision-making styles: Definition #1
There are four main different decision-making styles. These have been defined in different ways. One of these definitions is as follows:
Directive decision-making style
A leader who uses this style of decision-making uses their own knowledge and past experiences. Directive decision-makers are rational and tend not to rely on the opinions of others but on what they know.
The benefit of this style of decision-making is that it can be quick and accountability is clear.
This style of decision-making works well in situations where a decision needs to be made fast and the person making the decision already has prior knowledge or experience with similar situations. Of course, this also means that it’s best suited to situations where there are predictable patterns and where outcomes are unlikely to vary too much.
You probably use this style of decision-making often in your personal life for decisions that impact only you.
Analytic decision-making style
Analytic decision-makers like to analyze all the facts and figures and also like to gather information and input from others. The decision is made upon examination of all the information.
A major difference between an analytic decision-maker and a directive decision-maker is that analytic decision-makers, unlike directive decision-makers, will seek information and advice from other people to confirm or deny their own knowledge.
Clearly, this has pros and cons. On the one hand, it eliminates the risk of the decision-maker deciding without all critical facts. However, this approach requires more time and there is a risk of analysis paralysis.
Conceptual decision-making style
Conceptual decision-makers take a collaborative approach. A leader who employs this type of decision-making style will have the team brainstorm different ideas. This type of decision-making is great for long-term planning and works well for decisions requiring innovation and creativity.
This approach is great because it involves input from lots of different people with potentially differing perspectives. This can lead to discussions and constructive challenges which aid the decision-making process.
Of course, this style of decision-making can take a lot of time. On the flip side, if everyone’s always on the same page it might be necessary to bring in some challenge.
Behavioral decision-making style
Leaders who have a behavioral decision-making style will give their teams options. The team can then discuss the options available and choose the option that best suits them.
Like conceptual decision making, this style and approach are collaborative however – since it’s focused on choosing options based on approaches that worked in the past and past successes – it’s less likely to reveal new ways of thinking and innovation, which can be a limitation of this approach if not addressed.
Different decision-making styles – Definition # 2
While the definitions of the four decision-making styles listed above are common, decision-making styles can be defined in other ways as well. In Decision-Making Solutions, four broad styles are defined. These are:
A collaborative decision-making style as the name suggests is one that involves collaboration between people. Both the behavioral and conceptual styles described above involve collaboration, but the two styles also differ as explained. If you’re wondering how to make a hard decision in any area, collaboration can always bring value.
Emotions are just part of who we are, so it makes sense that they may come into our decision-making processes. The question is, how much?
Making decisions purely from an emotional perspective is not often the best idea. Although it has some benefits particularly when it comes to personal and life decisions were listening to your emotions is essential.
But research has revealed that there are in fact benefits to an emotional decision-making style outside of personal decisions. For example, where a rational approach has been taken and you’ve reached two options that are extremely close or similar, listening to emotions at this stage can help with the final choice.
Also, emotions can be a subconscious signal for what we really want deep down- even if we feel conflicted on the surface, thus guiding us.
But often making decisions purely from an emotional perspective is not beneficial. In fact, there’s a risk of making decisions quickly, driven by our emotions, and then finding rational arguments to support what in reality is not a good decision.
With all this said, it’s clear to see that while bringing in emotional considerations might have some benefits when making some decisions, and while emotional decision making can support final decisions, when used as part of a wider decision-making process, this approach is limited, particularly in the workplace and shouldn’t be used in isolation.
A rational decision-making style utilizes structured reasonable, processes. In this style of decision making all resources available are considered and used, whether that’s tools (eg. analytical tools), expert knowledge, or specific processes.
Because of this, a rational decision-making process is easy for others to support, since it’s heavily evidence-based, limits bias, and is based on facts.
A rational decision-making process often follows a clear process and typically has a single outcome which is the optimal outcome.
During this decision-making process, information is gathered, questions are asked, and the future consequences are all considered and examined. Risk and uncertainly are also addressed.
Clearly, this is a very robust decision-making process and is a style that can really help when it comes to making difficult decisions. But, like anything, it’s not without disadvantages!
Disadvantages of rational decision making
Limitations in terms of human capability: It’s often not possible to reach the desired “ideal” “optimal” solution that this approach aims for. This is because as humans we don’t always have the capacity to gather every bit of information required, process it, and draw from it as needed. Especially when the amount of information is vast or complex.
Limited information resources: The model assumes we should or can gather sufficient information in terms of quantity, quality, accuracy, and integrity. It also assumes that we know all interdependencies and cause-and-effect relationships that would help us in finding decision alternatives.
Limited time constraints: Finally, with all the information gathering, processing, and analysis going on, rational decision-making requires a lot of time. Something which is often very limited- especially in business scenarios.
Intuitive decision-making is not to be confused with emotional decision-making. Think of this as making decisions from your “gut”
The intuition is complex and may encompass past experiences and patterns as well as emotional considerations, plus a myriad of subconscious factors we’ve yet to understand.
It’s anything that we know, perceive, understand or believe based on feelings or nature without actual visible evidence, rather than by use of conscious thought, reason, or rational processes.
While I for one believe we should all learn to listen more to our intuition more, when it comes to making decisions, there are risks involved with relying only on intuition. Especially when it comes to making difficult decisions.
For example, since your emotions do play a part here, you could have an emotional bias. What’s more, since the intuition or “gut” feeling is hard to describe or explain, it’s probably not the best decision-making style when your working in a team.
Benefits of intuition
But there are benefits, and your intuition can play an important part when making decisions. Did you ever get that feeling in your gut that something wasn’t right? Sometimes, it’s after you’ve made a decision, and it doesn’t sit right with you- but you can’t put your finger on why.
In these instances, your intuition may be trying to tell you something. So, taking a moment to dig a little deeper or double-check the facts could pay off or save you from making a big mistake you’ll regret later.
Finally, experts in their field are often able to listen to their intuition and make accurate intuitive decisions. The risk is that they feel too confident and go on to base other decisions on their intuition. Decisions in areas where they don’t have enough expertise.
So, when it comes to making decisions based on intuition, be aware of possible limitations, biases, and risks.
But ignoring your intuition completely is usually a dangerous road.
Different decision-making styles: Definition #3
According to the Harvard Business Review, decision styles differ in two fundamental ways:
- How information is used, and
- How options are created.
These two criteria fall on the opposite axis. And this forms the basis for their decision-making style model
When it comes to using information, some people want as much as possible. So they can review every last detail before coming to the most optimal decision based on their findings.
In management literature, these people are called “maximizers.” They can’t rest until they’re certain they’ve found the very best answer.
This might sound great, after all, isn’t that what we all want. The best of everything? But as we discussed above, this approach takes time. And lots of it!
On the other hand, some people/ managers just want the key facts. With that, they’re happy to make a hypothesis and make the decision to try something from there. They’re also happy to make adjustments along the way if necessary. Or even change the approach completely.
These people are called “Satisficers” ( a term coined by behavioral economist Herbert Simon).
Satisficers are ready to act as soon as they have enough information to satisfy their requirements regardless of what further information might be out there.
When it comes to creating options, according to HBR, some people are single-focus decision-makers. They put the focus on one outcome. For others, the opposite is true. These people are multi-focus decision-makers. They make lists of possible options and are happy to work through them, adapting and changing as necessary.
Single focus decision-makers believe in taking one course of action.
Using these two dimensions- information use, and focus – HBR defined the following decision-making styles:
- Decisive (little information, one course of action)
- Flexible (little information, many options)
- Hierarchic (lots of data, one course of action)
- Integrative (lots of data, many options)
Decisive decision-making style
People with the decisive style are all about action, speed, efficiency, and consistency. In this style, once a plan is in place, they stick to it and move on to the next decision. When decisive decision-makers deal with other people, they value honesty, clarity, loyalty, and, especially, brevity. So, if you’re going to approach them, keep things brief and on point.
Flexible decision-making style
Like the decisive style, the flexible style focuses on speed, but here the emphasis is on adaptability. Faced with a problem, those who operate in this mode will get just enough data needed to take action. If they need to change course later they’re happy to.
Hierarchic decision-making style
Hierarchic decision-makers don’t rush to judgment. Instead, they analyze a great deal of information and expect others to contribute. They will readily challenge others’ views, analyses, and decisions. From the hierarchic perspective, decisions should stand the test of time.
Integrative decision-making style
The integrative decision-making style is not about finding the “best” solution. They tend to frame any situation very broadly, taking into account multiple elements that may overlap with other, related situations.
As a result, the decisions made are broadly defined and consist of multiple courses of action.
When working with others, integrative decision-makers like lots of input and are happy to explore a wide range of viewpoints before arriving at any conclusion. This includes views that might conflict with their own. The integrative style treats decision making not as an event, but as a collaborative process.
Of course, people don’t fall neatly into one box or another. The reality is that different situations will call for different approaches and the key to being a good decision maker lies in selecting which style is most appropriate.
What skills are needed for good decision making
In addition to the different decision-making styles, if you want to understand how to make difficult decisions then you need to know the skills required to make decisions. To make good decisions, you need to have the following skills:
If your decision-making process involves other people then it’s important to listen fully to their input. Otherwise, it won’t benefit the process. This means, being non-judgemental and putting your own thoughts, opinions, or views about what you think should happen to the side.
Before any decision can be made you first need to be clear on what the problem is that the decision will solve, and what the desired outcome is. This can be as simple as needing more space, so you need to move to a bigger house, and as complex as having poor staff retention. In each case, there’s a clear problem. Every decision made solves some sort of problem.
And as you work through the decision-making process and examine the options, more problems will come to light. Whether that new risks being identified or there’s a cost or time limitation. The ability to solve problems will help you to work through any challenges to find suitable solutions.
Time is always a key consideration. And when it comes to decision making, you need to consider the time needed to make the decision, AND the time required to implement. If there’s not enough time to implement what’s been decided then there’s an issue.
When making any decision, whether you’re making a hard decision or one that’s more straightforward, you need to plan. That’s planning for the decision-making process as well as creating an implementation plan.
You might be wondering why the decision-making process itself needs planning. Well, depending on what the decision is, and who’s involved, and who will be impacted, you’ll need to make sure all relevant parties are available for collaboration and input.
Whether it’s senior leaders that need to approve or sign things off or other teams that need to provide their cross-functional information. Everyone’s busy, so making sure you plan for this is essential.
Gathering information is pointless unless you know how to analyze it and translate it into something meaningful that can help your decision-making process. This is why analytical skills are also key, especially when it comes to making hard decisions involving lots of factors.
From start to finish, decision-making requires communication. And this isn’t limited to workplace decisions or collaborative decision-making alone. If you’re making a decision in your personal life that could affect others, a lack of communication could cause problems down the line.
What’s more, throughout the decision-making process, you must be able, to communicate your own thoughts and opinions and get people on board if consensus is needed.
Finally, to make good decisions you need to be flexible. Flexible enough to take other people’s ideas on board, flexible enough to consider that the complete opposite of what you think might be true, and flexible enough to understand that the approach may need to change later.
In fact, being too committed to only one ideal outcome and only one route to get there will make the decision much more difficult.
How to make difficult decisions easier
Some decisions will always be hard, and there’s no getting around that. But if you’re wondering how to make hard decisions in general, or just how to make a hard decision easier to make, then here’s what you need to know.
Choose the best decision-making style for the situation
To make a hard decision more easily, you must choose the right decision-making style. Be aware of the different styles of decision-making and be flexible enough to use different styles depending on what’s best for the specific situation.
Be aware of cognitive heuristics
Cognitive heuristics are mental shortcuts that we all use to make sense of the world.
We use these mental shortcuts, or rules of thumb when making judgments, or decisions. They help to lighten the mental load when we make choices, but they can also lead to errors.
For example, decisions may contain cognitive bias. Therefore it’s important to do what you can to mitigate the possibility of these heuristics and biases affecting your decisions
Wondering why we use heuristics at all? Think of all the information your brain has to process every minute of every day. If your brain didn’t naturally find a way to create shortcuts you’d be in a state of information overload!
Be aware of decision fatigue
Decision-making uses up energy. Every process in your body requires energy and decision-making is no different. The more decisions you make, the more energy you use. Regardless of how small the decision is, it will use a certain amount of energy.
Now imagine you’ve made 100 small decisions before you even get to work. You deliberated over what to wear; you agonized over whether you had time for breakfast or not; you forgot something and wondered whether you had time to go back for it or not; then you didn’t have enough petrol and you were left wondering if you had enough in the tank to make it to work or whether you should you get some now?
Ok, this all sounds very silly. But the truth is, every one of those points requires you to make a decision. Eventually, you get to work and later that day you have to make a hard decision… Oh, and it’s after lunch, so, since you forgot your lunch on the kitchen table, you also had to decide what to have for lunch as well.
By the time this hard decision comes around, you’ve spent a lot of energy on small decisions, so it’s no surprise that you’re wondering how to make a hard decision less difficult.
Since more difficult decisions will require more energy, you’re best off saving your energy for these hard decisions.
You can do this by limiting the number of small decisions you have to make every day.
Save your energy
Plan ahead, create routines and have systems and processes in place. For example, layout your clothes the night before, or have just one ensemble that you wear all the time – this works like a charm! Batch prepare your meals and sort out the car on a schedule.
Doing all this means that you’ll conserve energy for the things that seriously need it. So you’re not left wondering how to make difficult decisions when you don’t have the energy for it.
Some decisions are emotional. Painful even. If you can’t remove emotion from the situation, try to limit its impact. Pick the right time to make the decision, when you have the energy for it. Or get outside perspectives, from impartial people.
Challenge your decision more and be less certain
According to an article in HBR to make good decisions, you need to improve your ability to predict the likelihood of things happening, and also improve your judgment.
To do this, firstly, you need to stop being certain that you’re right. This closes you off to other possibilities and stops you from considering the different possible outcomes.
Challenge your decisions by considering all options. Seek the opinions of people who think differently from you. This way you’re less likely to miss a blindspot. Because we all have them.
Also, by being less sure that you’re right, you’re more likely to focus on logic and analyze the information you have more thoroughly.
Finally, another great way to test you decide to remove your preferred option, doing this will push you to really consider other options and their possible value.
Ask “how often does this happen?”
We don’t always see things clearly. For example, if two robberies happen in your neighborhood in quick succession, you’re likely to think that the neighborhood is terrible and robberies happen all the time. Even if there have only been 2 other recorded robberies in the last 50 years. But that’s how our brains work. When things happened recently, we’re more likely to think they happen often and will keep happening.
For this reason, look at the facts and figures and ask yourself, how often has this actually happened? And think long term.
As another example, if someone were to ask you how long a piece of work would take to complete, the chances are that many of us would underestimate this.
You would give a figure that you believed to be true, but if you were to go back and actually analyze how long that piece of work has taken you to complete in the past, every time you did it, the chances are you’d discover that it actually took longer than you first thought.
If you had asked yourself, “how often have I truly completed X task in X hours?”, then you’d be more likely to get the right answer.
Think of probability / learn basic probability
Prediction is all about probability. When you predict something will happen, really you’re saying the odds are in its favor.
We all do this, but do we really think about the realistic probability? Probably not. Getting to grips with simple probability and thinking in this way could help you make hard decisions more easily.
Weigh the pros and cons
If you’re struggling to make a difficult decision, sometimes a cost-benefit analysis is what’s needed. This considers all information and by evaluating the cost and benefits of each possible outcome you can then make a clear comparison. This way you’ll be able to clearly assess the opportunity costs of selecting one option over another as well.
Think long term
Thinking long-term can dramatically improve your decision-making, especially if you’re prone to making decisions quickly and from your gut or emotions. Because we all know that what feels good at that moment, isn’t always what’s best for the long term.
By taking a long-term perspective you’ll be able to check if your decision is likely to stand the test of time.
Understand impact and significance
Regardless of whether you’re making a decision at work with a team, or whether you’re making a personal decision at home, sometimes, it’s important to take a step back.
If you’re making a decision, then clearly a decision needs to be made. But not all decisions should be toiled over.
If things can be changed down the line, without too much trouble, then time could be better spent in other areas, rather than focusing on trying to make the perfect decision for the long term now.
Likewise, if the consequences or cost of making the wrong decision are quite mild, then again, you probably don’t want to stress over this decision.
This might sound simple, but too often, we forget that not every decision is irreversible.
This brings me to the final point…
Make a decision
Sometimes, the best way to make a difficult decision is to just make the decision. This way, you’ll be able to move on and learn from any mistakes if things don’t work out as expected.
We often forget that there are also consequences to not making a decision. This can be anything, from the valuable time being lost to money being wasted to stress levels increasing.
Lots of us struggle to make decisions because we want to know that the decisions we’re making are the right decision or even the best decision we can make. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to know this until you’ve made the decision and implemented it. Because, as we all know, anything can happen. And you can only make the best decision you can with the information, time, and resources you have available now.
An ok decision now is better than no decision at all for fear that it might be the wrong decision later.