In business there are two golden rules that help you to keep a straight line during your career. As a business leader one might be tempted to take decisions that are in violation with personal values or ethical standards. Throughout your career those standards might change gradually and you may wake up a certain moment not recognizing the person in the mirror. And discovering this might be dramatic. But even when you do not have this problem, you might experience decision stress, especially when taking a decision that has moral dimensions. By asking yourself two basic questions every time you need to take a decision, you can avoid both issues. These questions are:
- Is there a good reason to do something?
- Can I do this in a good way?
By asking these two simple questions you can keep a clear head and avoid decision stress, even when the decision is difficult.
The tricky part lies in the word good. What is good and what is not good? There is no way to decide for everyone in any situation. However there are some reflections that might help.
The goodness of the reason should be looked at in a broad way. Some companies define “good” as what is good for the company. So you might take a decision that is good for the company but that is harmful or unfair to others. An example is a decision that helps boost profits – which is good for the company – at the expense of others e.g. because of ecological problems. Another example is changing suppliers to decrease costs, but at the expense of local communities that are underpaid, working in bad conditions or forced to do child labour. A third example on another level is moving headquarters from one town to another just because the newly appointed CEO happens to live there. It is not always possible to overlook all the social, ecological or moral consequences of all decisions, but one need to do an (ethical) impact analysis prior to taking the decision. This requires a fair attempt to map all consequences.
The goodness of the way is even more difficult to evaluate. Difficult decisions leading e.g. to lay-offs or delocalization of business have a large social and emotional impact that make it difficult to execute them in a good way. In any case, people who are affected by the decision will not be able to appreciate the goodness in the decision that was announced. And sometimes there is not really a good way, but then again there might be a best way. One way to improve the manner in which a decision is executed is by establishing a clear communication style. E.g. whenever a plant closure is decided upon, it’s best that the CEO does the communication and is highly involved and available throughout the project. Doing a hit-and-run is not a good idea as it aggravates the emotional impact of the decision. Always bear in mind that the situation for people who are impacted by the decision is usually worse than for the business leader.
Sometimes you are instructed to execute a decision taken in some distant headquarters. If you do not understand the decision you should ask yourself why you should do this, even when there is a good way. You should ask questions and make sure you understand the reasons. You do not need to agree with the reasons and maybe you can suggest alternatives to the decision. You can use your influence to improve the decision. If you think that the decision is harmful to the company or one of the stakeholders, you should make sure that this is noted and that decision-takers are aware of some of the adverse effects of their decision and see the potential of the alternatives you propose. This is in the best interest of the company.
Avoid decision stress: the decision matrix
You can combine both questions in a matrix. If there is a perfectly good reason for the decision and there is a good and decent way, there is no decision stress. But in all other circumstances action is required. In all other situations taking and/or executing the decision will cause decision stress.
The question is why you should bother? A bad decision is better than no decision? And sometimes your personal influence is limited. Nevertheless you should try to improve the quality of the decision as much as you can. You owe that to the company. And there’s also something in it for you. By asking yourself the two questions you stay awake. Every time you are tempted to take a decision out of personal interest or to take a decision that is harmful to the company or any of its stakeholders in the short or long run, you risk to lose your integrity and your credibility. And once you have lost either, it is very difficult to restore them. So it’s worth while considering to ask yourself those questions.
Doing this will not make you popular. In the chain of command someone who asks questions like these may be seen as a disturbing factor. You might be seen as a maverick or just a burden. You might be seen as a part of the problem and not part of the solution. However, in all cases it’s your duty to come up with alternatives and to improve the decision. So this is not a call for resistance or for passivity. It’s a call to make an ethical judgment of the decision you are about to take or execute. It can only help yo to stay a trusted and respected leader. So go ahead and ask yourself these two basic questions every time you need to take a decision. Your values are worth it.