Quick-Fire Guide to Making Difficult Decisions at Work (+ Checklist and Examples)

As a manager or leader, most decisions you make at work won’t be a straight yes or no, or A or B. But that’s what makes them difficult.

There might be lots at stake, including decisions that could impact the entire organisation or just your team.

When those big difficult decisions come around, you’ll know how to make the best choice after reading this quick-fire guide including examples and processes to follow.

Group of employees learning how to make difficult decisions at work with example

What Actually Makes Decisions Difficult?

Decisions can be complex. Human beings are complex. When you combine the two, decision making can feel like you’re stuck in the middle of a tug of war competition.

As there’s many different decisions that need to be made, there can be plenty of reasons why you might find it difficult – including:

  • The stakes
  • Weighing pressure on yourself
  • Various factors that may be impacted by the outcome
  • Past personal outcomes that make you overthink your decisions

You might think it’s easier to take a path that lets you avoid deciding or procrastinate in the hope that someone else will make it or it will disappear. But that’s a decision in itself. By doing this, you’re actually making life more difficult by postponing the decision and spreading it across everything else you do until that moment you decide.

US Psychologist, Thomas Gilovich, provides hard evidence from his research in the 1990s that people experience greater regret from not taking action, compared to taking action that leads to a disappointing outcome. In simple terms, it’s better to act now, rather than leave more time for your indecision to thrive.

Examples of Potentially Difficult Decisions at Work

Everyone has a different view on what decisions are truly difficult, but there are some common complex decisions that many managers and leaders could spend hours or even days mulling over. For example:

  • Who to hire among several good candidates
  • Where to make budget cuts
  • Deciding who to promote
  • When to layoff an employee not working as they should
  • Which employee to assign to a different team

The Difficult Decision Checklist: 6 Things to do Before You Make That Decision

  1. Ask yourself the right questions
  2. Explore your options - in full
  3. Give yourself space from the decision
  4. Use a good old fashioned list
  5. Collaborate with others
  6. Set time to make decisions & be efficient

To stop being hard on yourself and staying awake at night thinking whether you’ve made the “right” decision, checking off these boxes will help you feel more prepared to make the decision you’ve been pondering (or staying up till 3am in the morning stressed about):

1.      Ask yourself the right questions

One of the best ways to fully investigate a decision is to think about the key factors that influence your answer. The questions you ask yourself will determine the answers and thoughts that follow. Make sure you understand the situation you’re in, the context of the decision and what you want the outcomes to be.

“What outcome would be best?”

“What’s the most important part of this decision, and why?”

“Why would this be good for the organisation or team?”

“Are there options I haven’t fully considered?”

Some say that committing to a decision you’ve made can actually be harder than making one. If the decision doesn’t pan out the way you thought, that can be difficult. But in today’s world, making mistakes, or “being wrong” is a learning process that all managers and leaders have to go through.

Overthinking can cause us to study every move, word or decision we’ve ever made in tiny detail, which can actually make us worse at our job. Read these top tips to start overcoming overthinking.

2.      Explore your options – in full

Unfortunately, not every work decision is as simple as A or B. To give yourself the best chance of making your final decision a good one, you need to dig deep and view your decision from different angles, especially if it will impact a large group of people.

Get creative in your thinking and try not to throw away any options too quickly without giving them thorough thought. Make sure you’re not bias in your decisions. Think about how this decision aligns with the organisation and their values, as well as the ethical impact or risks associated with each option.

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3.      Give yourself space from the decision

This might sound like a strange thing to do, especially if you need to make a difficult decision, and fast. But, the less bogged down and confused you feel about the decision at stake, the more likely you are to gain perspective and consider all your options in full.

One great way to open your mind about a decision is to imagine what advice you would give to a friend if they were making the same decision as you. Or, if you’re not so good at advice, think about how you would reflect on the decision in the long term – if you chose A, would you reach your objective?

There can be “blind spots” behind every decision. That’s why it’s important to take time to view other perspectives and outcomes. Learn more about the role of bias when it comes to decision making with this TED Talk.

4.      Use a good old-fashioned list

Whether you’re weighing out the pros and cons of a decision, or you prefer to visually see and compare the differences or potential outcomes on your options, make a list. This list will help you make an informed decision by identifying and evaluating all potentially options, and maybe even think of points you had not given a second thought.

Take a deep breath and think about your options (try not to endlessly mull over tiny aspects for hours – that only wastes time and energy!). Simply get a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle with one side for benefits and positive outcomes that could come out of the decision, then do the same for the other option.

5.      Collaborate with others

As a manager or leader, you might think you have to make all the big decisions alone. If anything, that’s making things a whole lot harder for you. Save yourself time and energy by collaborating with other leaders or colleagues to help you gain perspective of the wider outcomes and consider other potential factors you may not have thought of.

Here’s an example: Say you need to decide on your organisation’s new approach to creating social media content that engages your audience. Instead of working on a strategic plan alone, open up the floor and the members of your team to put their thoughts and opinions forward. Not only does this make employees feel heard by giving them an active role in decisions, but it also helps you, as the decision maker, to see other perspectives and work out what’s best for your team and service user.

Related: How to give meaning to collaboration

6.      Set time to make decisions & be efficient

Important decisions can weigh-in on your whole day, or even week. To stop this from happening, set time aside to take a break from your desk and really think about the decisions that need to be made. This could be an hour or quick 30 minutes, especially if you’ve got more than one decision to make.

Making decisions more efficiently can save you a great deal of time and unnecessary stress, especially if you’re feeling anxious about making a hard decision – it’s better to take a course of action so you can get back to being productive.

Sometimes you might not have the luxury of time when making a decision. In these times you need to have strong quick-thinking skills. Read how to boost yours here.

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