“I don’t know… let’s think about it and circle back next week…”
If you haven’t been in a meeting that ended like this then count yourself lucky. For the other 99.9% of people working in collaborative environments, indecision is a regular (and annoying) part of the workday. For more reasons than we can get into, committing to a choice is often harder than it needs to be.
Unfortunately, being indecisive isn’t just some minor annoyance. Indecision slows down projects, kills contracts, and wastes time you could spend on more meaningful work. And the more indecisive you are, the less time you actually have to do what needs to get done, leaving you open to overwork, stress, and burnout.
Not only do we have to contend with our own indecisiveness, but also clients, bosses, and teammates who refuse to make choices.
To keep your projects and your daily schedule running smoothly, we’ve put together this short guide on how to deal with indecision in yourself and the people you work with.
Inside Indecision: Why are easy decisions sometimes so hard to make?
Let’s start with the basics. Decision-making is hard. Especially when the impact of those decisions goes beyond the basics, like what you’re going to wear or eat for breakfast.
In the workplace, decisions can be life or death. They can be the difference between breaking through and hitting your goals or failure. Even the smaller choices you make can have unintended consequences. How you choose to answer an email, respond to a message, or give feedback can change the way people perceive you.
Because of all this pressure, we’ve developed all sorts of cognitive biases that impact our ability to not only make sound decisions but to break out of being indecisive.
Here are a few to watch out for:
- Imposter syndrome. We all lose confidence in ourselves from time to time. But if you’re constantly questioning yourself, you might be facing imposter syndrome. This syndrome is a psychological pattern where you believe you’re a “fraud” and are constantly at risk of being discovered. When it comes to making decisions, that self-doubt can be crippling and cause us to become indecisive.
- Decision fatigue. We’ve written about decision fatigue at length in the past, but the simplest way to break it down is like this. We all have limited willpower each day, and the more decision we have to make, the less energy we have to properly weigh the options and make an educated choice. As our willpower and energy dwindle, we either make poor choices or none at all.
- Analysis paralysis. Also known as “the paradox of choice” this is when you shut down and become indecisive simply because there are too many options available. In one study, shoppers at a grocery store were 10X more likely to buy a product when presented with 6 options vs. 24. In our culture of information overload, it can seem like more information is always better. But unfortunately spending too long and developing too many options can cause indecision more than anything else.
The SPADE framework and the science of getting unstuck
While all these reasons for being indecisive stem from different causes and situations, they all share a sense of being overwhelmed. And whether you’re getting burnt out from too many options, your perceived inexperience, or a long day of making decisions, you need a framework that can help you.
There are plenty of decision-making frameworks out there to choose from. But one that we like to use when we’re feeling indecisive is called SPADE—an acronym for Setting, People, Alternatives, Decide, and Explain. Here’s how Square’s Gokul Rajaram explains it:
Setting: What’s the context of the decision?
The first thing you need to do is ground your decision in reality. This is broken down into three parts:
- What exactly are you deciding on? Be clear and try to articulate the choice you’re facing in simple terms.
- When is this decision taking place? This means not just the duration and deadline, but why the choice has to be made by that time. For example, are there business goals that depend on making a choice? Is this decision a part of a larger milestone?
- Why does this decision matter? What are the values behind the choice you’re trying to make? How does it connect to other projects you’re working on. When you’re feeling indecisive, being able to answer “why” you’re doing something is a great way to help ground your thinking and not get swept away in the weight of the decision.
People: Who’s involved in this decision?
Next, you need to understand everyone who’s going to be involved in the decision-making process. At a minimum, you need to know the people who are being consulted, who approves the decision, and the one who’s responsible for making it.
Make sure you know all the people who need to be involved. But more than that, know how you’re going to work with them, how they’ll work together, and be clear about expectations.
If you’re trying to get over your own indecision, this will be easy. However, it’s always good to involve some people you trust to help you get through it.
Alternatives: What else is out there?
To make an informed decision, you need to have a vision of the world this decision is taking place in and what else you could do. To keep this from turning into analysis paralysis, you can follow a couple of techniques.
- Think about alternatives that are feasible, diverse, and comprehensive. When you brainstorm ideas from people, make sure they hit these three criteria. It’s great to think of “dream” solutions and to get diverse thoughts, but if they aren’t feasible they’ll never happen.
- Remember the 40/70 rule. The former secretary of state, Colin Powell, came up with this framework to help you decide when you have enough information. Simply put, he suggests making a decision when you feel you have between 40–70% of the information needed. This is enough to make an educated choice, but not too much that you get carried away and indecisive.
If not having enough information still scares you, remember the power of second order thinking. Instead of just thinking about the immediate consequences, look beyond them and think about the knock-on effects of this choice.
As Farnam Street’s Shane Parrish explains:
“Second order thinkers ask themselves the question “And then what?” This means thinking about the consequences of repeatedly eating a chocolate bar when you are hungry and using that to inform your decision. If you do this you’re more likely to eat something healthy.”
Decide: How are you going to make the decision?
This is the point where so many of us get stuck. Even with good people at our side, a clear and articulate why, and a list of alternatives, it’s still easy to get indecisive. When you feel the weight of a decision pressing down on you, it’s important to remain confident in the work you’ve done to get to this point.
According to Gokul, at Square, their decision-making process involves explaining the context and all the alternatives and then ask everyone involved to send feedback and votes via email, Slack, or SMS.
Once those have been received, the decider chooses one of the alternatives and then writes out a description of why that’s their choice.
But what if someone still doesn’t agree and threatens to derail the whole process? In these scenarios, Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, suggests trying the “disagree and commit” approach.
“This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, ‘Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?’ By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.”
Explain: Talk to everyone involved and run them through the process and the final decision.
Finally, a decision isn’t done when it’s made. The point wasn’t just to make any decision, but to create action. Once your choice has been made, the final step is to connect with everyone involved and explain what happens next. What are the action items and next steps?
How to use the SPADE framework to deal with an indecisive teammate or boss
No matter how well you articulate your decision-making framework, there are always going to be people that slow the process down. In these cases, you need to be aware of their personal context and find ways to break them out of whatever’s holding them back.
Let’s look at a few examples.
What to do with an indecisive teammate
You’ve got someone on your team who just refuses to make a choice, wants to keep discussing a topic, or keeps pushing things off. Instead of getting mad, apply the SPADE framework to your next conversation:
- Setting: Help them understand the context of this decision. When it has to happen and why it’s important to make it by then. As part of this, think about their personal context. Remember that they might be facing imposter syndrome or other issues that are making them feel especially indecisive.
- People: Who else should be involved in this choice? Do you need to bring in other teammates or even outsource the decision to someone else?
- Alternatives: Walk them through the other options out there. Keep the conversation open and avoid judgment. Use questions to keep the conversation moving forward but set limits based on your deadline.
- Decision: Let them choose the decision-making style that works for them. Maybe this means asking for feedback from other trusted people. Or using another prioritization strategy.
- Explain: Support their choice and help them move it forward. What do they need to do next? Make sure everyone who has an action item knows what they need to do.
Lastly, remember that they might be doing you a favor. What seems like indecision, could just be caution. Sometimes, the one pumping the breaks is the one who knows there’s a cliff around the corner. Even before you see it.
How to deal with an indecisive boss
Decision-making is one of your most important responsibilities as a leader. But we’ve all been in situations where the person who’s supposed to be steering the ship refuses to pick a direction.
Dealing with indecisive (or flip-flopping) managers and leaders is frustrating for everyone involved. But it’s also an incredibly delicate situation to deal with. Calling out your indecisive boss can lead to all sorts of issues and make you look bad. Instead…
- Setting: Understand where their indecisiveness is coming from. Your boss or manager usually knows the context of a situation more than you do. They have a longer view of the company and the product and what seems like an easy decision for you might have further reaching repercussions.
- People & Alternatives: The best thing you can do is act as a sounding board to build trust and help push the decision forward. Suggest others who might be able to help and present your own information and alternatives in a thorough way.
- Decide & Explain: There’s always the chance this decision won’t go the way you think it should. But whatever you do, don’t undermine their position or try to go behind their back. Even if you think your boss’ indecisiveness is harming your career progression, it’s important to treat the situation with the respect it deserves.
No more indecision. No more “circling back later.”
We all get indecisive occasionally and that’s totally fine. But it becomes a more serious issue when your indecision gets in the way of your career or holds back other people.
But by following a framework like SPADE you at least always know what to do next to get out of a rut and feel confident in the decision you’re making.