5 Reasons You’re Over-Thinking Your Leadership Decisions

by Jennifer Miller on June 1, 2015

in Leadership, Personal Effectiveness


How much time each week do you spend making decisions? Likely, many of the choices you make are almost automatic, requiring little thought: attend that meeting or not? Stay late to finish the report tonight, or come in early tomorrow? And then, there are more challenging choices, such as whether or not to terminate an underperforming employee’s employment.

Your daily work life is made up of numerous tasks, all of which require decision-making. According to Sheena Iyengar, a Professor of Business at Columbia Business School and author of The Art of Choosing, the average CEO works on 139 tasks per week. In a TED Talk called How to Make Choosing Easier, Iyengar reports that scientists who documented the many decisions related to those 139 tasks found that that 50 percent of the choices related to task completion took nine minutes or less. Not all decisions are reached quickly, however; about 12 percent of CEO decisions require an hour or more of thought.

When it comes to effective leadership decision-making, it’s both a quality and a quality issue.

As a leader, your ability to make sound decisions is imperative; knowing just how much time to invest in deciding can make or break your personal effectiveness and, by extension, that of your department and organization. To be sure, certain decisions require careful thought. But you’re probably over-thinking other issues that don’t require the attention you’re devoting.

Here are five reasons you might be investing too much time in “deciding”:

Your threshold for accuracy is too high. If you are a high achiever (and many leaders are), it’s likely that high accuracy is part of your DNA. If “nearly perfect” is your default operating mode, rethink your quality threshold. For decisions with low probability of negative ramifications, ask yourself what is “good enough” for this decision? Even if the choice doesn’t meet your standards, does it meet the standards of the person making the request? If it does, learn to let it go.

There are too many choices. If you have a tendency to be very thorough in your thought process, it’s possible you are inadvertently decreasing the quality of your decision. Professor Iyengar’s research has shown that having too many choices actually leads to poorer decision quality. Have you asked your staff to bring you numerous options in the name of thoroughness? Stick to between five and seven options for optimal decision-making.

You’re going for the “yummy” option. Sometimes the best choice requires a bit of willpower.  For example, you say “yes” to your customer (satisfying the customer is a key priority, right?) and agree to provide a quote for services by day’s end today, even though you know that it would be a more accurate—and therefore more profitable— quote if your engineers had another day to work on it.  But humans are notoriously bad at making choices based on outcomes that are future-based. David Laibson, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, describes research in which people offered fruit or chocolate will make the “healthy” choice of fruit if they describe what they plan to eat next week.  If, however, they are asked to make a fruit/chocolate choice today, then they tend to choose the yummier choice of chocolate, delaying the healthy choice until “another day.” What decisions are you making that are appealing for the near term, but would be even better if you exercised a bit of additional willpower?

The perceived risk is exaggerated. Although some of a leader’s decisions truly have important financial and people-related implications, many more fall into less weighty categories. Often, the choices that cause leaders to hesitate have far more to do with ego and reputation than any true harm to one’s team or organization. What do you (or your organization) really have to lose by making this choice? Remember that even failure can be an opportunity to learn something, so if that’s what’s holding you back, reconsider.

You have a “do-it-myself” mindset. Yes, the buck does eventually stop with you and there are times when you must make the tough choices. How often do you pull the decisions towards you when one of your team members could easily make the call? The greatest gift you can give as a leader is to develop the decision-making skills of your team members. In my early days as a professional, it was an immense confidence-builder when my work team leader told me, “You make the call, Jennifer. I trust your decision.”

Are you devoting the right balance of deep thought and expedient decision-making? The next time you have a decision to make, use these five guidelines to determine if this choice is worthy of an hour of your time, or less than 10 minutes. Then, get to deciding.


This post originally appeared on Smartblog on Leadership as 5 ways to make better, faster leadership decisions.


Image Pixabay

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jennifer Miller June 1, 2015 at 3:55 pm


Thanks for sharing this real-life leadership example. I’m always so impressed by your depth of leadership experience!

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