09/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015

Keys to Life: How To Be Decisive Without Being Divisive


Why do decisions seem so hard to make? Even simple decisions can be difficult, like which restaurant? Or what movie to see. Perhaps it has to do with the difference between deciding and choosing.

Decision Scenario #1 - Paralysis by Analysis

Imagine you are in a corporate meeting to make a decision. The group has in front of it three different options from which to decide a future direction. The moderator asks the group for thoughts about Strategy A. Someone starts to extol the virtues of Strategy A, when someone else jumps in and points out the flaws, limitations and other inadequacies of A.

The moderator notes that there are certainly some serious concerns about A and turns her attention to Strategy B. A similar pattern emerges, with a few comments in favor and another deluge of critical comments about why Strategy B will never work.

All right then, how about Strategy C? There are two very different types of groups that could be present in this meeting. A technically oriented group might devolve into deeper analysis and ever more data, a few arguments in favor and another host of reasons why it won't work.

The group might become paralyzed and decide that there really isn't anything that can be done. (Someone in this instance is likely to mutter, "I told you there isn't anything to be done. What a waste of time.")

Or, it could go something like the following.

Decision Scenario #2: Hope is our best strategy

Again, a group has convened to make a decision with the same three strategies to discuss. A similar pattern emerges, with Strategies A and B being proposed, supported and then shot down.

This group knows it must do something and the first two Strategies have already been dismissed. That leaves only one standing. If you have ever been in this scenario before, you know what comes next.

The moderator says something like: "Well team, with A and B already dead, it looks like the only thing we can do is enact Strategy C." And everyone agrees. Strategy C does not get the same scrutiny as A and B because, after all, we have to do something.

If a team picks the last remaining strategy and tries to force it into action, what happens when the strategy shows signs of not working?

"Try harder!" "Get committed." "Focus!" These are the common admonitions of the leader who has "decided" that the last remaining was the only way to go, and especially true if this leader has been part of arguing why A and B are inadequate. After all, what would happen if this leader acknowledged that Strategy C isn't working, and returned to Strategy A or B instead? This kind of about face might be seen as admitting weakness, that he was "wrong" in the first place. Definitely career limiting in some organizations!

In both scenarios, people were asked to make a decision, not a choice; they were asked to decide rather than to choose.

What's the difference? Let's start with decide, or de-cide. Do you know any other words that end in "cide?" How about the following list:

* Sui-cide
* Homi-cide
* Patri-cide
* Matri-cide
* Fratri-cide
* Genoc-ide
* Insecti-cide

I'm sure you can see the pattern. The origin of these words comes from a Latin root word which basically means to cut , to kill or to tear apart. Another meaning is to "stumble accidentally into a snare."

No wonder people avoid decisions! Who wants to stumble into a snare or be involved in killing things?

Decision Scenario #3 - Choosing Toward Your Desired Outcome

So, if asking people to decide isn't such a great idea, what's a better one? Choice or choosing come to mind.

Choice implies a direction toward something whereas decide suggests moving away from something (cut out, avoid the snare, kill off).

If we are asked to choose, rather than to decide, the discussion might be slightly different. "Let's examine these three choices - how might each of them help us get where we are going (Desired Outcome) and how well equipped we are to successfully implement each choice. (See last week's post about assessing capability)

As the team thinks about each option, it will come up with a choice that appears most likely to result in success for any number of positive reasons, rather than the negative reasoning of what is wrong with each choice.

Imagine that the team has elected B because they feel best equipped to implement it. A and C could work, although both would require resources, skills, abilities, etc that aren't as well developed as those required for B.

Suppose they discover later on that B isn't working as they hoped. Now what? If they had decided that A and C were hopeless, there is no turning back - either they push on or declare defeat. However, had they simply chosen B, it would be possible to revisit A and C to see if now one of them now makes more sense

Or, having learned a bit from implementing B, the team might regroup and discover elements of A or C that could be incorporated into B (continuous or iterative improvement). Or any of many other options that may now become apparent.

The point isn't about being right in the first place in terms of the choice; the point is about continuously choosing toward a desired outcome and having the wisdom to recognize and learn along the way.

Stepping Beyond the Insanity Calamity

Lastly, we have all heard the definition of insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result." One reason we see so much apparent insanity in day to day life could stem from people making decisions from a negative stance (away from something) rather than the more positive position of making choices toward desired outcomes. The negative kind of decision process can lead to endless loops of "trying harder" coupled with defensiveness or the need to prove someone "right" by making the decision work.

Our advice: when faced with a decision, first determine your desired outcome, assess your capability to implement each of the available choices, make the best choice you can toward the desired outcome, and stay open to new data which may cause you to reevaluate your choice.

Next week, we will look even deeper into the Cycle of Improvement, focusing more on accountability and how to read the results of choices you have made.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my new book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)