Making the Tough Calls

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

Making the Tough Calls

Nothing is a more frustrating than a tough decision. Decisions about right and wrong? Easy. Decisions where there is an obvious best way forward? Piece of cake. But what about decisions between two or more options that are all potentially right? What about those times when the team is split and they are looking to you to make a call? There you are, knowing that whichever way you go, you have a lot of uphill slogging to do with the part of the team that is not on board. And yet, decision making — especially when it is hard — is a fundamental part of leadership. I wish I could say I have answers for you. But as a coach, what I offer to clients are resources, tools and questions. So here are a few about decision making.

I do not know if Benjamin Franklin used the now famous “T” often credited to him to make decisions. The idea of putting the positives on one side and the negatives on the other is seductive; however, for many decisions, it is not a matter of positive vs. negative but of competing plausible directions. Perhaps that is why most of the people I have seen use this tool are salespeople, who list all the benefits of their products and services on the left side, and leave it to their “prospect” to come up with liabilities.

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When groups are stuck, my go-to is the “gradients of Agreement” chart. Everyone is required to disclose where they are on a spectrum ranging from “Let’s Go!” to “Absolutely not” about a clearly stated proposal. More important than making their mark on the chart: Everyone must disclose why they placed themselves where they did, opening up further discussion about what would make a difference. This is a common facilitation tool when there is no clear consensus.

Sam Kaner, author of “The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making” (Josey Bass, 2014), is one of the foundational gurus of facilitation and considers consensus critical. My own experience working with groups of five to 500 is that, while consensus is a wonderful aspiration, the search for consensus is more practical and almost as valuable.

Those times that I was the executive on the hook to decide, knowing that I could not get 100 percent buy-in, the gradients of agreement at least let me know who I had to influence, who I had to rein in and what would be necessary to get through the natural organizational resistance to change. (A web search will give you many examples of the gradients of agreement tool.)

A subtler but equally valuable tool is Rushworth Kidder’s book, “How Good People Make Tough Choices” (William Morrow, 1995). Kidder sets out four dichotomies into which he fits many of the toughest calls we are called on to make:

  • Truth vs. loyalty;
  • Long-term vs. short-term;
  • Justice vs. mercy; and
  • Personal interest vs. community interest.

Kidder was an ethicist and his questions are designed to find an ethical framework for the most difficult choices we face in life and in business.

For the biggest, hairiest challenges, look to your personal values and those cultural norms by which you and your organization operate. This bypasses the usual question about how you would feel if your decision was published in the Wall Street Journal for the world to see. That is a useful test for how far you are willing to push a boundary. Going to personal values gets us somewhere much more useful in that it tells us what our moral compass says about a particular decision. Even if the choice at hand presents no serious ethical issue, every decision has impact, and employing our values and culture as our guide helps insure that we are looking at all the implications of the decision — not just the easy ones.

When all else fails, there is one question that I will put to any executive who is unsure of the best way forward: “If your spouse — or, better yet, your young child — were looking over your shoulder and understood all the implications of the decision you were making, what would you want them to learn about you from the way you made the choice?” It is not a fair or rational question. Instead, it asks us to expose not the decision itself, but the way we made it and the criteria we used, to the toughest test of all.

I. Barry Goldberg is a credentialed executive coach and Vistage CEO peer advisory chair. Email him at