TSLH #057: 4 Traps To Avoid To Make Sound Decisions

TSLH #057: 4 Traps To Avoid To Make Sound Decisions

Read time: 5 minutes


Every leader understands that when they start a new job, they only have a limited amount of time to prove themselves. Common wisdom and business literature suggest that you have between 90 and 100 days to prove your worth in a new job. After that time has elapsed, you can still be successful of course. However, the first 90 or 100 days will pretty much define the rest of your tenure in the role: Start strong and you will enjoy a very successful ride; start wrong and the ride will look like more a roller coaster.
From the above it follows that the number #1 mistake that leaders starting on a new job do is to want to make as many decisions as possible in that limited period of time. Their (flawed) thinking is that when they make decisions, people will see that they do stuff, and they will build that momentum towards success.
Unfortunately, almost the complete reverse is true. For sure, any leader starting a new job will have to make some decisions in their first 90 to 100 days on the job. However, this should not be their entire focus. Falling in the trap of wanting to make as many decisions as possible exposes you, the leader, to 4 dangerous traps:
  • The trap of getting anchored to the first information you receive.
  • The trap of thinking that no decision is the best decision.
  • The trap of using your experience in your past company or role to make decisions in your new role.
  • The trap of waiting too long before making a decision.
As often, the best way to counter these traps is to be self-aware about them and recognize them when they pop up in your mind.
Getting anchored. Everyone has a tendency to create strong anchors using the very first information we receive about someone, an event or a situation at work. Our mind actually allocates disproportionate weight to that first information vs. any subsequent information we receive, even though later information may prove more accurate.
That trap may hit you when you need to forecast revenue or when you have to assess someone. In one of my leadership roles, I learned from my boss that one of my direct reports was a poor performer and she had demoted her. Equipped with this information, I was initially anchored to believe that the person was indeed a poor performer. However, being aware of that trap, I decided to form my own opinion by having a conversation with her, and getting additional feedback from other people. I then realized that she was not a poor performer; rather, she was not used in activities or the role that she was best at.
Here are ways to avoid the anchor trap:
  • Seek feedback from other people, look at other perspectives of the same topic, form your own opinion based on a variety of information, and do not assign unreasonable weight to the first information you got.
  • When discussing with people, do not tell them what you think – lest you anchor them and they then confirm what you’ve just told them!
  • Consider information relevant for the future instead of just looking at the past. When doing forecast for instance, it’s natural to look at the past. However, understanding the future may give you much more valuable information about how to forecast.
Thinking that no decision is better. When leaders start a new job and inherit a team, they often want to get going very fast. I see many of my clients wanting to jump right away in some team workshops and team building activities, to align everyone on a common vision, mission, values and goals. While this is definitely an exercise any leader should do with their team at some point, the flawed logic here is to launch these activities before any decision has been made on the team.
The usual thinking is that the team has been there, the leader is new, and it’s better to protect the team and not disrupt it by not making any decision about it. In short, status quo is better than change, or so goes the thinking. Deciding to not decide is also often a manifestation of risk-aversion: For instance, I don’t want to change anything on the team, lest my best people leave and the team performance drops.
As real as these risks are, a new leader cannot hope to take on a new team and bring them to their expected level of performance without making some decisions about the team. Of course, these decisions do not have to be made on day 1 or even in the first month. Rather, decisions in the case of a team could made in month 2 after using month 1 for deep analysis and review.
So, here is the key to this: The decision that is right to avoid making is organizing a workshop/team building event almost immediately after taking on the role. The decision that must be made though is to make any necessary changes on the team after having done a full review of it. Acting on the team may mean letting poor performers go, promote people to leadership positions, modify people’s roles where needed, etc.
Here are ways to avoid the status quo trap:
  • Review the team, or your business goals and ask yourself whether deciding to not decide is really the best route you have.
  • Stay open to other perspectives and ideas, keep getting curious and listening to other voices, so you can understand what else is available to you outside of status quo.
  • Think about past situations where you have chosen status quo and how you would have maybe made a different decision now that you have all the hindsight about the situation: Would you pick status quo again?
Using past experience. A trap many leaders fall into when starting on a new job is to think that they have an answer for everything and that the situation they inherit can only get better with them at the helm, because they know better. The danger is that the leader will start making lots of decisions without the necessary hindsight. The result will most likely be that bad decisions are made one after the other.
This is very damaging. If, as the new leader, you discard the past, criticize it, and want to make decisions quickly to implement what you think will work, this is a sure path to some big disappointment and failure.
We all love using our past experience to solve current challenges. This is just a natural behavior. And we think that because we solved something in the past, the same recipe can apply to a similar situation in a very different context, despite potentially having new information that contradicts what we think.
This is sometimes called the confirmation bias: We tend to put more weight on information that support our existing experience or opinion, and discard information that would go against these. As a new leader in an organization, not being aware of that bias can be very damaging for your credibility and reputation as a leader.
Here are ways to avoid the confirmation trap:
  • Do your homework and make a thorough analysis of the situation you have, not thinking that it will be exactly the same as a situation you may have had in the past.
  • Talk to other people and use them to test your assumptions and give you feedback on the decision you want to make.
  • Refrain from asking questions that would confirm your current thinking. Instead, ask questions that may give you new pieces of information.
  • Be very self-aware of hubris and how thinking that the situation you inherit is crap and you will make it better because you know better. Hubris is the number #1 leader killer.
Waiting for too long. Although I spent most of this newsletter warning you to not rush making decisions, a huge trap is to not make decisions at all. While you want to spend a lot of time early on learning about the team, the organization, listening to people, understanding the strategy, the challenges, you also want to use some of your time for some key early decisions. Consider for instance the example I gave with the team when discussing the thinking that no decision is better trap.
The danger that is looming in waiting too long before making a decision is this: When you inherit a situation and you don’t make decisions, that situation finally belongs to you and you are suddenly responsible for it.
Let me give you an example: One of my clients, Claire (name changed) started 4 months ago as the manager of a new team. When she started, she knew that her accounting team had a problem because the team was not able to close the books in less than 2 weeks. Her boss and other stakeholders were mad at the team because they needed data quicker in order to make the right decisions and they expected Claire to address that challenge quickly.
Claire spent some time analyzing the problem and what the causes were, and at the same time, she was under pressure to produce reports for the upper management. As it turns out, after her first three months in the job, she had not yet solved the issue and it still took 2 weeks to close the books. Claire’s issue was now that her boss and the other stakeholders were blaming her. In short, the situation she inherited had become her problem.
This is a very damaging situation to be in. In the case of Claire, she was able to turn the tide by managing up efficiently: She had a conversation with her boss to let him know what support she needed from him. As I write these lines, Claire is on the right path to improve the closing process, making her boss and stakeholders happy with the change.
Here are ways to avoid the procrastination trap:
  • Get feedback from peers, stakeholders, your boss about how they’re impacted by the situation you inherit and agree with them on what an expected outcome is that has everyone aligned.
  • Don’t think of the situation and the expected outcome as a giant step to overcome. Rather, think in small achievable steps that will take you to the desired outcome. And while you achieve the small individual steps, continue to communicate with your boss, peers and stakeholders to let them know about the progress.
  • Identify possible early wins out of the situation and deliver against these first. This will help create a strong impression that you are moving in the right direction (which will be the case).
Remember, your first 90 to 100 days in a new job will have incredible visibility in your team and the organization you’re in. People will use that time to assess how credible and efficient you are as a leader. Your main goal in these first 3 months is not to rush into making one decision after the other to prove your worth and show that you are doing stuff. Rather, your goal is to listen and learn, absorb as much as you can, and then make the most informed decisions possible. This is how you’ll prove your worth and be credible.
I wish you a great read. I’ll see you next Saturday!
TL; DR (Too Long, Did not Read)
4 traps to avoid to make sound decisions
  1. Getting anchored.
  2. Thinking that no decision is better.
  3. Using past experience.
  4. Waiting for too long.

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