Reading Time: 3 minutes

Rebecca SchalmA month has passed since the SNC-Lavalin affair, but the storm continues to swirl, and I’m inspired again to draw on this situation as a leadership learning opportunity.

There have been no shortage of ‘What were they thinking?’ moments as this scandal has unfolded, causing us to wonder about the quality of the decisions being made.

We all face difficult situations. So how do we ensure due diligence before making a high-impact decision?

The more complex and nuanced the issue, the less likely it is that there are clear-cut right and wrong answers. We can never guarantee we will always make the ‘right’ decision. We can, however, increase the likelihood of making good decisions through robust due diligence, and then anticipating and preparing for the consequences of our decisions.

There are some typical decision-making traps we can all fall into and ways to avoid them.

Failing to recognize, early on, the importance, scope or complexity of an issue.

We’re all moving quickly and juggling a lot of balls. Sometimes it feels like we’re on autopilot, moving from one crisis to the next. When we don’t slow down and intentionally engage our brains, we run the risk of overlooking something really important.

This is exacerbated when we have a job where everything we’re dealing with is big and complex, or when we’re confronting something for the first time and don’t have lessons of experience to draw from.

Strategies for avoiding this trap include:

  • Schedule regular thinking time dedicated to reviewing key issues and challenges you face. Big decisions shouldn’t be made on the fly nor should consultations be squeezed into the crevices between meetings.
  • Flag issues you’ve never dealt with before. If you have no prior experience with something, it’s particularly important to slow down and gain a full understanding of the complexity.

Limiting decision-making inputs.

While we all agree there’s strength in diversity, most of us aren’t very good at following through. We tend to fall back on a small group of advisers and confidantes, even when we can anticipate the advice we’re likely to get. When the stakes are high, it can be emotionally reassuring to hear familiar perspectives from those we trust.

However, we can fool ourselves into believing that hearing different perspectives is the same as hearing diverse ones. To maximize diversity of inputs and cast new light on an issue:

    • Seek out the advice and perspective of people whose opinions you don’t know or have never consulted.
    • Seek out the advice of people who regularly disagree with you.

Forgetting to plan for the consequences.

Too often we focus on making the best possible decision under the circumstances and then move on. The reality is that every critical decision has consequences we will have to deal with. When we don’t stop to think about what dominos could fall, we’re unprepared to respond to them.

There are times when how we respond to events is even more significant than the decision itself. In his book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, author Steven Johnson talks about using a pre-mortem before making a critical decision.

This is a strategy for imagining and anticipating the full range of consequences that could occur so we can plan for them, or even use those insights to reconsider our decision.

Doing a poor job of delegating decision-making.

As leaders, we have to delegate responsibility for decision-making to others. Leaders can struggle with which decisions they should make and which they should farm out.

Some leaders exercise too much control and want to make every decision, even when they lack important insight or expertise (the micromanagers). Some exercise too little oversight, leaving others to flap in the wind and make critical calls on their behalf (the absentee landlords).

Both situations can lead to problems in high-stakes situations.

As a leader, it’s important you get clear on where you need to operate.

We’re all confronted with difficult and complicated decisions, the consequences of which can have long-lasting impacts. How we approach them can make all the difference.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.