Management and leadership are two very different roles. They are often mistaken as the same role, or merged into the same role. However, one of the key differences between the two is making tough decisions. As a leader, decision making will often fall into your lap. You’ll find yourself having to make some tough decisions. In that space, a key to success will be doing what is right, not what is easy.
It is easy to do things right; follow the formula or policy and make sure all the boxes are ticked; make sure everyone else is following the process and ticking the boxes; repeat. Whilst some management roles require some large decision making, most of the large scale decisions are made by the leaders. As a leader, you are often in a position to make decisions that will have a ripple effect on those that you lead. Some decisions are easy to make and have minimal consequence. The consequences may be contained to a small group, or just your direct team. Or they may be quiet positive. However, sometimes they extend well beyond your team, affecting the organisation and the beneficiaries. And they may be harder still if we know that the decision won’t be received well by many. When we know that our decisions will affect people, especially negatively, they are harder to make.
Over the years as a leader, I had to make decisions that I knew wouldn’t go down well with my team. Those decisions were even harder when I knew that it wouldn’t only be my team that would be affected, but other teams within the organisation, as well as beneficiaries. I agonised over them. I would sit with my leadership team and we would look at every possible scenario. We would brainstorm all possible solutions, but in the end, it always came down to this one question, “what is the right thing to do here?” That question was the foundation for all my, and our, decision making.
The ‘right thing’ can be subjective depending on what position you’re looking at it from. A team member or volunteer may view what they want or what they believe as the right thing differently to you because they aren’t looking at it from the bigger organisational picture. In their mind, you’re not doing the right thing, but the wrong thing. Beneficiaries may also view your decision as the wrong thing because it may negatively impact what they receive. People won’t always see your point of view or understand your position, and that is okay. They aren’t bad, selfish or ineffective at their role, they just have a limited view of the big picture. They aren’t looking at it from a broader organisational perspective but from a personal one.
As leaders, we need to be comfortable with upsetting some people. This is not to say that we have a disregard for the needs of our people and put the organisation first, or the beneficiaries first. Without our people, we wouldn’t have teams and organisations. Our people are crucial and important. What this is saying is that we need to understand that as a leader, we need to do what is right and necessary for the collective – our teams, organisation and beneficiaries. Our decisions will affect people and whilst most of us would like to avoid upsetting people, or negatively impacting them, it sometimes can’t be helped. People, organisational and beneficiary needs don’t always line up, and in those cases, someone will be unhappy. And as leaders, we need to be able to face the backlash that some of our decisions will incur.
But it’s not all bad, because how we communicate the decision can help ease the blow for some people. Having said that, communicating hard decisions is still tricky, especially when you know that it won’t be received well. In my experience, I’ve learned there are three key things here. Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge those that the decision will affect. We need to acknowledge what this means for them and how this will affect them. And it needs to be genuine. Fake empathy can be spotted from miles away and people will know when you are not genuine with your care.
Secondly, we need to give them the ‘why’ behind the decision. As leaders, we can’t just drop an announcement with a token statement like, “this is what’s best for the organisation” and go. Blanket statements like that do nothing but make people feel like a number, not an employee. Yes, there are times when you need to refrain from sharing all the details, however we need to do better than just ‘this is what’s best.’ And when you can’t give all the information, give detail around the process. Big decisions that impact people need to be explained carefully and well, otherwise people will lose trust and confidence in your leadership. Again, not everyone will understand the decision, but it’s important to respect people enough to give them a why.
And thirdly, as the leader, it needs to come from you. Not your subordinates. Not your communications team on behalf of the organisation; it needs to be personal. A sure fire way to lose respect from your team is to not own a decision and make someone else share the bad news. One of the leadership teams I was part of held the belief that if we made the decision, we owned it and announced it. We didn’t make others announce it. We didn’t hide behind our team and make them bear the backlash from the field, we owned it. We would personally and in person (where possible) announce the decision to everyone and would give people the opportunity to share their thoughts. We always had the leaders in the room so that they were part of it, but we never made our leaders announce the hard things on their own. And if an email was the only way to communicate, then it came from our personal email, not the communications team, and it always had an invitation for feedback. Whilst many didn’t like some of the decisions we made, on multiple occasions we were thanked for respecting them enough to front up and share the decision ourselves.
Leadership can be hard. It’s not always about the wins. There are failures and mistakes to deal with. And when you have to make tough decisions, it can be downright lonely. Maintaining our integrity, and that of the organisation, along with doing what it right, is always important. At the end of the day, doing the right thing is always the right thing, no matter how hard it is.