Emma: I generally don’t get too hung up on making decisions. One time, right after we started working together, Andy watched me buy a coffee maker for my boyfriend after about 10 minutes of research!
Andy: I was astonished. I’ve taken longer to decide to get up and go to the bathroom.
Emma: When there’s more at stake than a coffee maker, though, I’m not nearly as quick or as decisive. It’s what makes being a manager so exhausting: constant decision making that will impact other people, or my reputation, or my mood, or my future, and so on and so on for all the reasons any of us might waffle.
Andy: Decisions can be painful. But, even more painful? Waffling forever. Living in that ongoing state of deciding is agonizing. As a new manager I did it a lot! I had all these open tickets in my brain and they were all slowing down my processor. But, what if I make the wrong decision!?
The thing is, we can’t predict the future, so any decision we make has some inherent risk. We might get it wrong. And still, we have to decide
I first came across the decision-making framework we’re talking about today in a book called, The Baby Decision — which as you might guess is not about workplace decisions, but is concrete and compelling regardless. It helps walk through the different decisions and “non-decision decisions” we all make all the time.
Emma: Indeed. I am not pregnant, nor trying to decide whether or not I want to be, but I still found this framework extremely clarifying. It lists six types of decisions in two different buckets: Growth and Safety.
There Are 3 Types of Growth Decisions
Yes to Option A / No to Option B
I am going to create a new Marketing Manager role.
I will put in my two weeks notice on Monday.
No to Option A / Yes to Option B
I’m going to keep doing all the marketing myself and not change our customer acquisition strategy.
I will not put in my two weeks notice. I am going to keep this job.
Postpone for set amount of time and/or until goals are achieved
I am going to wait to decide on hiring a Marketing Manager until I see the year-end balance — if we have the funds for a senior-level role, I’ll open the req.
I will revisit this decision in six months, when I have saved up six weeks of pay in my emergency fund.
And There Are 3 Types of Safety Decisions
Non-decision of Option A to avoid answering to anybody (including yourself) about the decision
I’m not going to create a new Marketing Manager role, but instead will push the work and goals onto our Associate Social Media Marketer.
I will stop caring about my job and let my performance suffer — if they fire me, fine.
Non-decision of Option B to avoid admitting you made a decision and facing disapproval
I’ve had “hire a Marketing Manager” on my to-do list for four months with no action.
I missed the application deadline for the new job I had been looking at, even though I had several weeks to prepare.
Non-decision to agonize and keep circling the issue without setting any goals
I keep running the numbers, doing new org charts, and writing new job descriptions to try to determine if this role is right for the team, now and into the future.
I keep complaining about this job to anyone who will listen. I’ve had tons of informational interviews to find out if I’m qualified for anything else. I read lots of Medium posts about other people who have regretted changing jobs, and take online personality tests to find out what my dream career should be.
Andy: Having this framework really shines a spotlight on some of the lingering decisions in my life — and why they’re still with me. For years, I’ve been making the non-decision to not hire a tax person. I am afraid to pick the wrong person, plus I’m a little bit intimidated by financial stuff in general. I think I probably should hire a pro. Then I wait until April 10th, and all of the tax people I contact say, Nope, I’m full! So I suffer through TurboTax yet again, anxious that I’m doing it wrong, and maybe probably have been for the past decade.
Emma: Andy! Get yourself a tax person!
Andy: This year I finally did. So far, it’s been incredible.
Emma: Safety Decisions always feel easier to make in the short run. But they come with a lot of agony. I’ll bet anyone who has ever languished over the decision of whether or not to fire someone will tell you: it is non-stop misery. Being able to diagnose that misery — Am I in the agony of a Safety Decision? — helps me put it in my control. I can identify what’s scaring me. I can set parameters for re-evaluating later, instead of incessantly. Best yet, I can start making moves toward the freedom and pleasure that comes with actually making a choice.
Andy: Yes. I wish for everyone the joy I’m currently getting from my tax person.
20 Safety Decisions We’ve Made (or We Have Watched Happen) That Caused Unnecessary Misery
1. Didn’t want to say no to someone’s idea, so made them put together an endless number of proposals, knowing I would never say yes
2. Let someone “pass” a PIP even though they didn’t do well, and blamed the quality of my plan
3. Voted “neutral” on a hiring decision even though I thought it was a “no”
4. Procrastinated on deciding to apply for a promotion until after the deadline passed and it was “decided for me”
5. Sought a new role so I didn’t have to manage a problem person any more — they’d become someone else’s problem
6. Went back and forth on whether or not to give feedback
7. Had way too many hard conversations and “last chances” with no actual consequences
8. Constantly re-started work or picked new projects to begin
9. Retooled the project management app / budget / org chart / project plan over and over again
10. Didn’t tell the truth about something — just evaded the question
11. Didn’t respond to the email, ever; things “got lost” in my inbox
12. Scrolled vacation destinations but never took time off or booked a trip
13. Complained about The Problem (person, project, timeline, system, client) and didn’t change anything
14. Didn’t fire the client
15. Snoozed emails without a plan to follow-up
16. Procrastinated and avoided: delayed meetings, avoided someone in the hall, repeatedly pushed out deadlines
17. Lied that “something’s come up”
18. Pretended my boss “has to approve it” before I could say yes
19. Obsessed over the alternate realities of “If I had made the other choice”
20. Avoided making a decision because the choice I wanted wasn’t possible
Emma: Like any framework that sits on a binary — growth = good, safety = bad — this one can be used to bludgeon yourself with self judgement. Beware.
Andy: Absolutely do not use this framework to tear yourself apart about the decisions you’ve made and haven’t made. I should have studied abroad! Bought a house in 2008! Started a retirement account when I was 16! Said yes to that assignment I turned down!
Emma: This framework encourages taking responsibility and cultivating commitment, which I believe are both necessary for being a Good Boss. I also believe that there are endless examples of times when managers don’t actually have the power or support to do either. Their boss can over-trump their decisions; the culture of the company might be one that prioritizes safety over growth; they may be operating in such a punitive environment that a “bad” growth decision would flambé their good standing.
Andy: Naming a Safety Decision for what it is doesn’t mean you can’t still choose to go that road. Sometimes, safety really is the sane choice!