Business leaders will have to make two kinds of difficult decisions. The first and most straightforward are those where we have all the data we need to make the right decisions. Examples include:
- Hiring the best candidate for a job.
- Diversifying our product and service offerings.
- Hiring the most qualified person.
We will find the correct answer if we are objective.
How to make difficult decisions?
This second type is more challenging. These decisions require complex and subjective decision-making. These decisions can have a notable impact on people’s lives, whether they are customers or employees. They may also cause some people to be unhappy. These decisions may not always be objectively correct. To find the best (or perhaps “least bad”) solution, it might be necessary to examine morality, ethics, and personal values.
Eric Pliner, CEO of YSC Consulting, has written a book that outlines this idea. Pliner was kind enough to participate in a webinar discussing the practical steps to tackle these complex, subjective, and sometimes human decisions. It’s a pressing issue because many organizations are coming out of a difficult period where they had to make many of these decisions.
Pliner said to me that he had noticed a consistent theme in our conversations: “One of my main themes is that the most difficult challenges leaders face aren’t easily solved through the use of ostensibly objective information.
“They are hard because they are human. They have real implications for peoples’ lives. No matter how much data and analysis we do, it doesn’t make sense to make decisions that don’t affect people.
These included making tough choices about furloughing staff or laying them off, maintaining workplaces and premises open, implementing home-working policies and instigating safety precautions to ensure staff are safe and not in danger.
These decisions are difficult because there is no straightforward correct course of action. This can only be determined by looking at data. There might be two principles that seem to be “right”, such as the need for a business to continue to exist, ensuring people have jobs, and protecting people from harm.
Similar to the above, requiring employees to get vaccinated prior to returning to work puts bodily autonomy issues – how employees use their bodies – and public safety in conflict.
Pliner says that when two sides of a triangle, personal morality, ethics context and responsibility for our roles, conflict, these “difficult choices” can arise.
He suggests that this way of modeling decisions helps us find a simple method to solve problems. Look at the third side.
He says, “When two sides of a triangle are at odds, look to the third side, in this case, your role and your responsibilities.”
What is my responsibility as a leader? My business should be productive. I must ensure my people are healthy, able to fulfill their responsibilities and that their families and communities are well taken care of. It’s evident that to do that. I have to either give people the option of whether they want to enter the space or, if they choose to, create a set to meet their ethical expectation of public safety.
Pliner admits that different leaders might make other decisions depending on the circumstances. It does provide a structure to help you deal with decisions that seem impossible or to which there is no solution.
These issues are faced by companies all the time. They can end up in challenging situations if they do not have a method for making these decisions. The more a company is, the greater the chance it will fail. Pilner explains that many leaders have made a mistake simply overlooking these problems over the years. However, this will only lead to more difficulties. He cites Disney and Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill as an example. The refusal of the corporation to condemn the state’s recent legislation banning homosexual relationships in schools – despite CEO Bob Chapek’s assertions that he disagreed – led to it being under fire from all sides – its customers, workers, and state legislators.
On the other hand, Pliner points out Ralph Lauren as a company that has done a great job of making difficult decisions. It took a complicated process to understand and evaluate the consequences of every decision it had to make to care for its more than 80,000 employees during the pandemic.
“The sign that they could have made a good choice is that around 80 percent of their employees returned to work after the furlough period. That’s a great sign about their values and how they live them. They understood their ethical context and were able to reconcile it with their responsibilities.
After our conversation, I asked Pilner for his one piece of advice to leaders regarding making difficult decisions.
He tells me that the answer is to examine why we make certain decisions concerning each side of the triangle. This requires us to think about our morality, understand the ethical context within which we make decisions, and learn the expectations for our roles concerning all our stakeholders.
He told me that he encourages leaders to think about these things when they’re not in crisis. Because when it does come… it has for all of us in the past few years… you are better equipped to handle any difficult decision.