How to make better decisions

Don’t just let emotions drive you.
By Cheryl Meyer

Decisions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are simple to make and inconsequential, while others are challenging, and bring with them potential risks or rewards: Do I take that job offer? Should I ask my supervisor for that big project? Do I leave this job for another?

“It’s important to work at making good decisions, but good decisions are not always easy,” noted John Engels, founder and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., in Rochester, N.Y., and a speaker at the 2017 EDGE Experience in New Orleans. “A lot of decisions involve discomfort, involve compromise, involve disappointing someone, and involve taking a stand that is tough to take.”

There are a few principles to follow, though, that can increase the chances that your decisions will result in a good outcome. Leadership experts and experienced CPAs offer these tips for making better decisions:

Don’t avoid the decision. When faced with tough choices, some people do nothing. They evade making decisions that “are difficult, painful, and cause friction,” said Engels, who serves as leadership coach to AICPA President and CEO Barry Melancon. “Try to rein in the impulse to avoid discomfort. When you are uncomfortable, try to go into it, not away from it.”

Be conscious of your mindset when making a decision, said Janeen Shaffer, founder of Shaffer Coaching & Consulting LLC in Richmond, Va. “You want to be in a place of strength and confidence and clarity as much as possible.”

Keep your emotions in check. You may be stressed, angry, or anxious. But don’t make choices based on how you feel at the moment. “It’s good to consider your emotions when making decisions. It’s bad to let your emotions get in the way,” said Aaron Clayton, CPA, CGMA, a 35-year-old partner at Eide Bailly in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a 2016 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy.

Since most CPAs are meticulous and fact-driven, some “may not express their emotions, but emotions are still capable of driving decisions,” Engels noted. So, breathe deeply, take a walk, or do whatever will help you become calm before determining a course of action.

Make value-based decisions. “First and foremost, make a decision based on your values,” said Caleb Bullock, CPA, CGMA, business development manager at Somerset CPAs PC, in Indianapolis, and a 2015 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy. “Which decision will get you closest to what your internal values are?”

Seek outside advice. Tap your friends, family, and colleagues for guidance. Seek out experienced coaches and mentors who have made tricky decisions of their own. “Be a relentless pursuer of feedback,” so you realize how you are perceived and “where your blind spots are,” Engels said. Provide various options to people you trust but who may offer a fresh perspective on your situation. 

Have empathy. Your decisions will influence you and others as well. So, “having empathy for the individuals in the situation is important,” Bullock said. Understand the stakeholders, and who is relying on you, whether that’s family or co-workers, the public, lenders, or clients, said Clayton.

Go with your gut—and your head. We’ve all heard the saying, “Go with your gut feeling,” which can be sound advice depending on the scenario. But completely trusting your instincts is a mistake, Engels said: “Your gut can be wrong, or it can be really on target.” Gut instinct, he said, “has to be substantiated with thinking.” So, gather data, weigh your options, and avoid making a rash decision.

Make a pro-con list. Clearly articulate challenging decisions in writing. Then, trying to keep a neutral perspective, jot down potential positive and negative outcomes. For the outcomes that are simply too hard to predict, consider getting another person’s input or opinion. Based on those discussions, you should be able to evaluate if the outcome has the potential to be a pro or a con.

If warranted, have a backup plan. Sometimes, you need an alternate plan in case your decision flops. “It’s really important to have a backup plan if the consequences could be significant either to the business or you,” Shaffer said.

Learn from your mistakes. Everyone makes poor choices at times, so take heart and gain wisdom from your blunders. As Engels noted, “Bad decisions are not necessarily useless decisions. The key is what produced the decision and what [you] have learned from it.”

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this story, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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