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How to Avoid a Desperate Decision

When things get bad, it's tempting to try something--anything--to right the ship. Don't fall into these common traps.

In the face of hopelessness, frustration, and obstacles, it’s all too easy to make only a token decision, and then hide under the veneer of "at least we got something done."

Leaders, whether in government or the private sector, feel that they have to achieve some forward movement. They have to show that anything is better than stagnation. But it’s precisely when you’re fed up with your present situation and are willing to try something different just for the sake of it that you’re most likely to be rewarded with a mediocre result.

Acting from a position of desperation is not the same as trying to achieve a rational, well-thought-out compromise. 

In a recent article in the Administrative Science Quarterly, researchers Ji-Yub Kim, Jerayr Haleblian, and Sydney Finkelstein examined the behavior of managers who were under pressure to show growth. In a study of 872 acquisitions made by 401 firms, the authors found that managers who were desperate to show growth—as measured by their firm’s weak growth as compared to that of comparable companies--were more likely to overpay for an acquisition. They had taken action for the sake of taking action, and their companies were paying the price.

It’s not just acquisitions. In many spheres, the pressure to get something done can lead to a sense of desperation, impacting the quality of leadership decisions. 

How do you, as a leader, make sure that your desperation and frustration do not result in decisions that weaken your position in the long-term?

When you find yourself in a corner, take a step back and consider these five points:

1. Avoid making symbolic moves: It may look grand, it may have a sense of drama to it, but it just might not be necessary. Certain actions may make you look busy, but at what price?

2. Appreciate that no action is action: Just because you remain in place doesn’t mean you’re out of the race. The tortoise, after all, wins the race.

3. Do not lose sight of quantitative numbers: In desperation, leaders sometimes rationalize to suit their own ends. Make an effort to leave your emotions on the side when you gather, compute, and analyze the relevant numbers.

4. Keep your ego in check: Ego and overconfidence sometimes compel individuals to make moves they shouldn’t.  Before moving forward make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and don’t let your personal feelings unnecessarily influence your judgment. .

5. Don’t get carried away with the doomsday metaphor: It’s tempting to believe that if you don’t make a decision or don’t take any action, everything around you will sink into oblivion. In these situations, keep in mind the immortal words of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t panic.”

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Last updated: Jan 17, 2013

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Co-founder, Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG)

Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of the Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), an organization which specializes in leadership development programs with an emphasis on specific behavioral-skills such as leading for change and innovation, political skills to move agendas, coaching skills to enhance individuals and teams, and leading through negotiations. He is also the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation will be published by BLG in March 2015.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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