There are two types of difficult decisions that business leaders will inevitably come up against. The first, and by far the easiest to deal with, are ones where, given the right data, we have everything we need to make the right decision. Some examples might be hiring the best person for a job or diversifying our offerings into new products and services. Objectively, there is a right answer, and with an analytical mindset, we will find the right solution.
The other type is a little bit more difficult to deal with. These are decisions that require more complex and subjective decision-making. Sometimes these will be decisions that will affect people’s lives – the people within our organization or our customers, and they might mean making some of them unhappy. With these decisions, there may not be an objectively "right" solution – and getting to the “best” (or, perhaps, “least bad”) solution might require examining issues of morality, ethics, and personal values.
This is the premise of a book I recently read, written by Eric Pliner, the CEO of the international consulting group YSC Consulting. Pliner was good enough to agree to join me on a webinar to discuss the practical approach he has put together for tackling these tricky, subjective, and often very human decisions. As many organizations are currently emerging from a particularly difficult period during which they have come up against many of these decisions, it’s clearly a particularly pressing issue right now.
During our conversation, Pliner tells me, “One of the themes I notice consistently is that the challenges that leaders are most troubled by are the ones that don’t have the ability to be solved easily through the use of ostensibly objective data.
“They are difficult because they are human, they have real implications for people’s lives, and no matter how much data we gather and how much analysis we do, we aren’t able to make the decisions without having some effect on people.”
Difficult decisions brought about by the ongoing Covid-10 pandemic have, for many organizations, required making extremely tough and challenging choices around furloughing or laying off staff, keeping premises and workplaces open, implementing home working policies, and instigating safety measures to ensure that staff are healthy and put in the least amount of danger as possible.
What makes these decisions tricky is that there is not a clearly correct course of action that can be determined by examining data. Two principles that both seem "right" – such as the need to keep a business running, so people's jobs are viable and the need to keep people out of harm's way – might be in direct opposition to each other.
Similarly, requiring staff to be vaccinated before returning to workplaces puts issues of bodily autonomy – what employees do with their own bodies – and public health in opposition.
Pliner suggests that these “difficult decisions” arise when any two sides of a triangle – personal morality, ethical context, and the responsibility of our roles – come into conflict.
Helpfully, this way of modeling decisions also gives us a straightforward method of finding a solution, he proposes; simply look to the third side of the triangle.
“When any two sides of the triangle come into conflict, look to the third side – in this case, your role, your responsibilities,” he says.
“As a leader, what’s my responsibility? Make sure my business can be productive, make sure my people are healthy and able to deliver on their responsibilities, and that they and their families and communities are taken care of … ultimately it's clear that in order to deliver that, I either have to give people a choice about whether or not to come into the space, or if they are going to come into the space, to create a set of measures that align to that ethical expectation of public health.”
Pliner acknowledges that there are times where, following this framework, different leaders may come to different decisions, given the same set of circumstances. But nevertheless, it does offer a structured approach to tackling decisions that might seem hopeless or where there is no good solution – or even a least bad one.
Companies face these issues all of the time and can find themselves in very sticky situations if they don’t have a methodology for making such decisions. And the bigger a business is, the more potential there is for it to run itself aground. Many leaders over the years have made the mistake of simply ignoring such problems, but this is likely to simply cause further difficulties because, as Pilner examines in his book, there are many situations where inaction or delay has the effect of becoming a choice in itself. To illustrate this, he points to the example of Disney and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. When the state introduced legislation recently banning the discussion of homosexual relationships in schools, the corporation’s refusal to condemn it – despite CEO Bob Chapek’s assurances that he personally disagreed with it – has led to it coming under fire from all parties – it’s customers, workers, and the state lawmakers.
On the other hand, Pliner points to Ralph Lauren as a company that has done a good job of navigating difficult decisions. In making decisions on how to look after its workforce of more than 80,000 during the pandemic, its leadership underwent a complex process of understanding and evaluating the implications of all of the choices which had to be made.
"The sign that they potentially made a pretty good set of choices is that roughly 80 percent of their employees returned after the furlough period – that’s a pretty amazing sign about the values that the company espouses, but also the way they live their values, that they understood their ethical context and they were able to reconcile that with their role responsibilities.”
I finished our chat by asking Pilner what would be the one piece of advice he would give to leaders on the subject of making difficult decisions.
The answer, he tells me, is to evaluate why we make the decisions that we do in relation to the three sides of the triangle we talk about. This involves thinking about where our morality comes from, understanding the ethical context in which we make decisions, and learning what exactly the expectations of our roles are in the eyes of all of our stakeholders.
He tells me, "I encourage leaders to think about this stuff when you're not in a crisis, because when the crisis inevitably comes … it's come for all of us within the last few years … you're better prepared to be able to deal with whatever difficult decision is in front of you."
You can click here for my webinar with Eric Pliner, CEO of YSC Consulting and author of Difficult Decisions: How Leaders Make the Right Call with Insight, Integrity and Empathy.