If you have been a leader long enough, you are probably used to dealing with urgent issues. To be fair, this goes with the territory. When the stakes are high and time is of the essence, leaders need to engage. However, many seemingly time-sensitive issues are in fact just the opposite. Prioritizing those issues distracts from dealing with high impact, high value activities, and perhaps more importantly, can do more harm than good.
Here are four questions to ask to help decide whether it is time to take action.
Are you trying to make a decision based on facts or assumptions?
This is important because, in the most stressful situations, it is easy to let fear run amok and assume the sky is falling. In most cases, it is not. So before acting, determine whether you have considered the type of data that could confirm or refute your fear. However, be careful, because if you are an analytical thinker, the tendency to search for too much data can become an excuse for not making a decision when one is needed. The reality is that the problems leaders face are usually complicated and require a balance of both data and using judgment where data may not be available in a reasonable timeframe.
Does the matter involve an immediate threat to the physical or psychological safety of your employees, customers, or others?
Not surprisingly, situations like these call for immediate action to mitigate the threat. However, it is important not to overreact by making permanent changes when those changes are not absolutely necessary. When a problem poses a significant immediate threat, it is almost always the result of complex, systemic issues that will take time to fully analyze and digest. Taking that time can lead to better long-term decision-making.
Is this a familiar or unfamiliar situation?
Familiar situations, such as garden-variety recessions, often call for familiar responses (reductions in discretionary spending, restructuring, etc.). However, when faced with new challenges, our brains try to recognize patterns consistent with past experiences. Problems arise when we think we see similar patterns even though the situations are, in fact, much different. To avoid this risk, consider pausing, because the cost of a brief pause may more than offset the cost of a rash decision.
Does the situation call for a creative solution?
If the answer is yes, time may be your friend. As best-selling author Adam Grant points out, research has shown that procrastination can lead to solutions that are more creative.
Finally, despite your best efforts, there is always a risk that you will be wrong. As a result, whenever you have to make high impact decisions, it is important to identify the information you need to evaluate the quality of your decisions, then implement the systems required to gather that information. Doing so will help identify missteps early, before they cause long-term damage. Additionally, sketching out contingency plans can instill a sense of calmness in the organization by ensuring that your people understand in advance how the organization will correct course, if necessary.
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