So said Robert Frost in a poem he wrote in jest for Edward Thomas, his fellow poet and forest walking buddy around Gloucestershire, England. Edward always had a hard time choosing which forest path to take, and at times would lament he wished he’d taken the other. Over one hundred years later the way we make decisions has not changed much, although the complexity and context of our choices has expanded and we’re less likely to be choosing between forest paths. The importance of having a values-aligned approach to making decisions has never been greater.
As the working world shifts and evolves, decision making has become more complex and multifaceted, especially for leaders. Technology and global issues are driving rapid shifts in demand for new skills and ways of working. Work lives are becoming less linear; many of us will have multiple careers over a lifetime – perhaps even several simultaneously. Stakeholder interests in people and culture, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters, and the ability of a leader to rally a team and engender loyalty and high engagement, can put further pressure on leaders who already care deeply about doing the best for their people.
The backdrop of increasing complexity around the way we spend our days and the scope of our responsibilities is met with the same wiring that Robert and Edward used when choosing which forest path to take through the English countryside. No wonder leaders can feel overwhelmed and in need of support around the what and how of decision making.
As a leader, understanding what biases, assumptions, and preferences you bring to decision making can elevate decision making frameworks from ‘directing traffic’ activities to transformational. In a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous), making good decisions is as much about bringing consistency and an underlying predictability over the longer term, as it is about having one decent outcome. Our decisions should bear out what we wish to prioritise over time; our most important values, both organisationally and personally.
Applying decision-making frameworks can be helpful, especially when the framework is simple and flexible, and able to be internalised and applied with some degree of ‘intuition’. For instance, the Cynefin (“ku-ne-vin”) framework describes four types of decision making contexts: ‘simple’, ‘complicated’, ‘complex’, and ‘chaotic’. For each context, the framework outlines the leader’s job, the ‘danger signals’ or responses that might signal a response is counterproductive, along with the possible remediation moves a leader can take when sensing ‘danger signals’.
At their best, such frameworks remain nonrestrictive and can become intuitive, whilst allowing us systematically to work through a series of leadership challenges. However, we must go deeper if we are to bring a more robust level of consistency and predictability (and therefore trust) to our decision making. This is especially important in the leadership context.
Alongside your chosen framework is the need to repeatedly and deeply acquaint yourself with your value drivers and needs – as well as those of your company, your organisational and leadership purpose, and identify how they interact. When under threat, people tend to retreat to actioning ‘survival values’ based around safety and security, which prioritise short-term survival over longer-term performance. The same is true in an organisational context.
It is imperative that you take time to identify your core values and organisational values, alongside shadow values that may undermine what your core values can bring. “Knowledge is power” as they say. It is a matter of exploring how values inform your decision making, and interact with your leadership style.
Make sure, then, that you take time delving into values. More thoroughly explore what are your organisational values in action: Ask yourself
- how do my organisational values operate in action at their best?
- how might they operate in a counterproductive fashion? and
- how do my core values operate and interact with my organisational values?
In the organisational setting, it is your company’s values that must be prioritised in decision making. But the way you harness your personal values when making decisions at work goes a long way to steering the direction of your growth (and performance) as a leader. Authentic alignment between your personal and organisational values can make the stuff of generational leaders.
Intentional, values-based leadership development is grounded in the moment of decision making. Especially in a VUCA world, the use of practical frameworks in conjunction with deep values work through the lens of a psychologist coach, can help leaders level up in making courageous and consistent choices.
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If you’d like a hand navigating decision making in leadership, check out our coaching offering—TMR Coach—it’s a bespoke service designed to cultivate impactful leaders and high performers.