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Why leaders make bad decisions and how to make better ones

Leaders who understand how to make good decisions and good choices -- and the differences between them -- will do better with conflict and create better situations for employees and employers.

5 min read


Why leaders make bad decisions and how to make better ones


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Where there is unresolved or mismanaged conflict, connect the dots to see how the issues relate to ineffective decision-making or misaligned choices.  When leaders understand the power of decision-making and the ripple effect of choices, they can shape the culture, drive growth and reduce costly mistakes.

This post highlights three ways leaders make poor decisions and how to make better ones.  

Lack of clarity

When employees (or leaders) aren’t clear about who makes the decision and what the decision-making process is, boundaries get crossed and misunderstandings escalate into high conflict.

When faced with conflict, it’s common to jump to a solution too fast. Action before clarity leads to making wrong decisions  — for example, moving someone around to a different department to reduce conflict instead of having a difficult conversation about behavior.

Another example is offering a workshop for disruptive employees when the real issue is leadership development.

What to do: Remind yourself that conflict isn’t the problem, mismanagement is. Slow down. Notice your discomfort and your urge to take immediate action, but wait until you can clearly describe the current situation with facts instead of assumptions.  

Next, articulate the desired outcome. Write a situation analysis, and you’ll see how difficult clarity can be. Try describing the desired outcome without getting distracted or getting decision-fatigue.

These two points of reference (the current situation and the desired outcome) gives you enough clarity to see the obstacles and the next right step

Mistaking choices for decisions

Most of us use the words “choice” and “decision” interchangeably to describe the same actions but distinguishing between those two words clears confusion. A decision is bigger than a choice. A decision is strategic, and a choice is tactical. A decision is like an island, and the choice is like a boat full of rowers.

In other words, decisions give direction. Decisions are made in advance so that choices are easy to make.

I recently spoke with a leader who was dealing with a disruptive employee who was on final warning. The choice was whether to terminate employment. When we looked at the policy (previous decisions) and the employee’s behaviors, the answer was easy.

Making exception after exception means one of two things: Either the previous decisions aren’t workable, or it’s not clear how to align choices to decisions.

What to do: When faced with what seems like a difficult choice, first look at previous decisions to help make your choices easier.  Look at mission, vision, values, characteristics and policy, then be guided by the decisions already made. Just as you should not set boundaries you don’t intend to keep, don’t make policies you don’t intend to enforce.  

Misunderstanding the basis of choice

Alignment occurs when choices agree with decisions made in advance. For example, if has been decided that the company always promotes from within, it’s an easy choice to seek internal candidates first. If you decide to eat healthy, it’s easier to drive past the fast-food joint. Unfortunately, most choices are based on something other than well-thought-out decisions. Sometimes our choices are based on convenience, fun, avoiding risk or looking good.

To make it practical, let’s say you know you need to initiate a difficult conversation with a star employee who has a few behavioral problems, but you keep putting it off. Your choice to avoid may be based on protecting the employee, the need to be liked or the fear of experiencing uncomfortable emotions.

Much of the time we are unaware of hidden motives. Although the choice is there, we simply react on the basis of some unknown motivator.

What to do: Become aware of your actions and ask whether you were aware of your choices at the time or whether you taking the path of least resistance. Make a list of what motivates you, and notice when you are more likely to react or make choices that are misaligned with higher priorities. You can use this same technique when coaching other leaders or employees.


Where there’s mismanaged conflict, look at how decisions are made in the organization. When employees don’t understand who makes the decision or how decisions influence choices, there will be misalignment. And where there’s misalignment there will be conflict.

Better decision-making means better choices, and better choices means better conflict management, and better conflict management means higher productivity and less stress.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and the forthcoming book “From Conflict to Courage” (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn, or at

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