How Confidence in Difficult Decisions Signals Executive Potential

Aug 25, 2020

By Sunday Tollefson, MBA, PMP®

"Don't be afraid to go out on a limb. That's where all the fruit is."
- Bob Ross

You know that time you took a really big risk at work?  How did you decide to make that decision? Why did you go out on that "limb?" And how did it impact your courage muscle for making bigger future decisions? How did it impact your career?  

When you really think about it, what sets your difficult decisions apart from regular decisions is the risk involved. Risk means that there is an unknown element to the results of the decision. It means there are potential negative consequences that someone will have to own. There are events, aspects, dependencies, that can change the desired course of the action and subvert your ideal result. That's what makes these decisions difficult. Difficult decisions are made because they must be made. Even choosing "no action" is a choice, although it is often the one that requires the least courage and the least accountability.  

Ordinary performers don't need to take big risks, or many risks at all. Leaders must take big risks, and they must bring people along with them as they encourage others rise to the challenge. How do they do that? How should you do that? It takes two key ingredients: courage and confidence. You derive the courage to make a difficult and potentially unpopular decision. And you must be prepared to signal conviction in that decision. That requires confidence.

When you convey your decision to execute an action containing risk, how do colleagues see you differently?  Here are some of the factors they evaluate about you:

  • Are you well informed?
  • Does your information line up to demonstrate the value of the risk?
  • Are you confident in the supporting data?

When you can convincingly explain your rationale, colleagues respect your strategy and trust that rationale. It is more likely they will grow to respect and trust you. By making difficult decisions, you shift your relationship with colleagues and key leaders. Even if some disagree with your, they respect your way of handling the matter.  

Star performers make tough decisions rather than sit in the back ground, waiting for directives from others. True, it is easier to wait than to step into the fire. Not everyone can garner that courage. Not everyone will be able to make those decisions.  You're not "everyone."

Studies show that people who take decisive action – even if they are sometimes wrong - are more likely to be promoted to higher levels of responsibility. Why? Because they are seen as having the courage and gravitas needed to take action, lead a team, and manage a situation to a desired end. They have a sought after "bias for action."   

As you see opportunities to make difficult decisions, do so.  If you are seeking to advance your career from Phenom to Pacesetter or from Pacesetter to Magician, this is the perfect time to surprise those around you. They'll observe your behavior and begin to see your executive potential as a Principal or LuminaryThis is a critical step. Colleagues must be able to envision you with this confidence, courage, and gravitas before you are considered for the high impact projects you desire. (Note: Have you taken the Career Stages Quiz?)

Muster your courage, convey your conviction, bring others along with you. If this seems difficult, challenge yourself to start small.  Ask yourself these questions about a difficult decision to set your path forward: 

  • Is this an informed difficult decision I want to drive, knowing the risks and rewards?  
  • Is my "courage muscle" warmed up and am ready to defend my decision? 
  • Do the data support my choice?  
  • From whom in my audience do I most need to obtain buy-in?  
  • How do I need to convey my message? 
  • What is my goal-set? In other words, what is my goal for both the risk reward, and for risk loss? 

If you're feeling some amount of fear in facing down these difficult decisions, while mustering the courage to make them, you're in the so-called sweet spot. Accept the trepidation of informed risk as the price of your career and personal growth. That risk is the key to demonstrating your courage, conviction, confidence, and competence. And rest assured, you are more likely to be rewarded than punished for doing so. Don't let the fear hold you back. Let the risk inspire and motivate you. That risk is the opportunity, and within it is your chance to accelerate your rise and deepen your impact. Making difficult decisions, when done well, signals courage and confidence, two virtues that helps leaders shine. 

© Sunday Tollefson



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