The power of making a decision in uncertain times
March 31, 2020
By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader
Martha leads HK’s succession and exit planning services division and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin’s InBusiness digital magazine.
We live in uncertain times. We always have, realistically. They just feel more uncertain right now. Nonetheless, life continues. You still must earn a living, take care of the family, house, and car, and walk the dog. All under these new clouds of stress and uncertainty.
Reflecting on this, I’ve noticed something about decision-making. Faced with an important decision, levels of uncertainty play a tremendous role. For some people, it can be insurmountable and paralytic. For others, motivating. Either way, I believe decision-making can be empowering.
For example, I recently faced making a product decision. I conduct an owner roundtable series on “Finding True Value.” The series runs over the course of six months, roughly two hours per month, and includes content and small group discussion. While feedback from participants on this format has been over the moon, we had been getting pressure that six months was too long, and we should consider a one-day or two half-day session approach. Conversely, another option was to take the program online. Conceptually, both changes to the approach are very doable, however they result in a far less personal experience when covering some crucial topics. Concerns existed about whether the lack of face-to-face and group interaction would impact effectiveness.
The tug of war in my mind was full force. Making the decision wasn’t coming easily and, while clearly not at the level of insurmountable or life or death, I felt stuck. Being stuck certainly wasn’t empowering, but empowerment came when I recognized that I didn’t have to decide which way to go right at that moment. I gave myself permission to come back and revisit it when I had more input.
Fast forward to when the decision did have to be made so we could schedule and promote the next round. There was a new data point: COVID-19. The situation demanded taking our client service and care to another level. We care about our clients’ overall health — business and personal. Decision made. The digital approach is the hands down win-win. Once a month for six months digitally is much more attractive than two half-days or one-long-full day online to cover the material. Yes, face-to-face is always more effective than teleconference communication, but video conferencing is more effective than having no discussion at all!
Here’s the most fascinating part: Making the decision itself was empowering. In the scheme of life, it’s a pretty minor decision, yet it felt freeing to be positioned to move forward knowing that the decision was made. Was it the right decision? I don’t know. The proof will be in the pudding with registrations. Regardless, there was a mini “high” knowing that the decision was made.
Similarly, there have been other recent examples where I’ve experienced a mini “high” simply from having the decision made, such as our financial strategy in the face of market volatility, whether to work from home or not, and summer travel plans in the face of pandemic risks. (Interestingly, the decisions were made before governmental states of emergency and other actions made them for me.) While there’s varying levels of joy with the decisions made, there is immense comfort that the decision has been made. Alternative plans can be developed, and we can act.
That got me thinking about how we, as humans, deal with uncertainty, psychologically speaking. There is immense research on the topic. We deal with uncertainty based upon what predictions we’re able to form, consciously or unconsciously, about the given circumstance, related stimuli, potential rewards or consequences, actions to be taken, and so on. Each of these elements compound as we process what we’re facing. The higher an element’s likelihood appears, the more we reduce uncertainty.
Simultaneously, our brains tend to lean more aversively in the face of uncertainty, which triggers negativity and anxiety. The more you understand this as a part of human nature, the more you can empower yourself to consider your options. The more we objectively think through the pros and cons of a situation, and then decide on what course of actions to take, the more manageable it becomes. Uncertainty may still exist. However, you’ve grabbed hold of what you can and processed it.
Ultimately, we analyze these situations based upon three different elements — our prior experiences, our access to and integration of new information, and our rate of learning. Learning rates are highest at the earliest time in our thinking about a situation, which are naturally linked to heightened points of uncertainty. (Just think about how much googling you’ve done lately.) We then integrate the flow of information and learning with our prior experiences to arrive at our conclusions and decisions.
Of course, emotion can overshadow decision making in the face of uncertainty as well. The marks of a true leader, however, is his or her ability to maintain a calm sense of perspective, with a clinician’s objectivity, when weighing out a decision. And then, for the best for the stakeholders and communities impacted, they make the decision.
Uncertainty is testing our decision-making daily within our companies, communities, and homes. Yet we can do this! Control what you can. Contribute where you can. As the old prayer goes, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Sage advice. Empower yourself in the face of today’s uncertainty.
Stay healthy, y’all.