• Opinion: “I don’t know – what do you think?”

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  • 24 Mar 2016
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If you want to be taken seriously, you need to ban this phrase from your vocabulary and flex your decision-making muscle, writes Penny Whitelock

There are many occasions when the phrase “I don’t know – what do you think?” makes me wither inside. I want to shout “you will have splinters in your bottom sitting on that fence” but it won’t help. I can see that the person saying it really doesn’t want to make a decision.

So when I am recruiting, the ability to make a decision is something that I will try to root out at the interview stage. I don’t mind how they go about making a decision – Do they need data? Do they need to think? Do they need to talk the options through? – but I do want them to make a decision. I want independent thinkers who are confident enough to voice their opinion out loud.

When I first became a managing director, the accountant brought in a pile of invoices for me to sign off. I went into a cold sweat – how on earth could I decide if we should pay them or not? I didn’t know the suppliers, and I didn’t know if we had agreed to purchase the goods or not. I realised very quickly that I needed to make a decision, because one of the key skills that had got me the job in the first place was my confidence in making decisions.

So I did – I made decisions – I paid most of the invoices, I queried some and I spotted errors in others. I have never looked back. People believe I am a decision maker and I don’t let them down. I may decide to push someone else to decide, I may decide to consult people who know more than me, but decide I will.

I recently profiled a group of 16 women, and a staggering 13 of them would not make a decision. And when they were placed under pressure to do so, they became even more insecure. People like this will struggle to achieve their dreams because colleagues and bosses don’t know their capabilities, and they don’t know if or how they want to progress. In this group I worked with, many of these women didn’t realise what they were doing or how that made them look to others. The only way to overcome this is to practice. Exercises to provoke the decision-making muscle are uncomfortable and they may hurt afterwards – but with use it will get much easier.

It’s also important to recognise that you can’t choose everything – that even deferring a decision is a decision in itself. Some decisions don’t work out as you expect, but that doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong. Any decision will include elements of the unknown and, unless you own a crystal ball, then you cannot always guarantee the outcome.

Recognise the difference between an easy decision and a tough one. “What do you want on your sandwich” isn’t one of the tough ones. ‘Should I start my own business?” – well that takes a bit more thought. Start small and safe, and the big stuff will get easier in time.

Penny Whitelock is director of learning and development at Strategi-hr, and co-author of the ‘Why women don’t play golf’ programme



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Comments (3)
  • Thanks for your article Penny it reminded me of the old joke, "I used to be indecisive but now I'm not so sure!!"

    We are finding similar patterns too in work we do with both male and female leaders. One root cause, especially in the finance sector, is the threat of regulation and the consequences of making a poor decision. The system within which people are having to make decisions does not always lend itself to leaders being sufficiently decisive. This despite the fact that the pace of business seems to be increasing. Pace and threat are not especially conducive to quick decision-making.

  • Do you not think that those who say that phrase feel they are not empowered to make such decisions?

  • Loved this article. It is so true, the more you shy away from things the harder they become. Even a wrong decision can be a learning experience.