When Good People Make Bad Decisions—and How to Make Good Ones

Treat every decision about “Yes” and “No” as a choice about investing your time and energy. Like making an investment decision, you should follow a due diligence process.

Some people simply say, “Yes,” to everything, because they’re trying to be good team players. Or they think “Yes, yes, yes” is what will make them a go-to person.

Some people aren’t even aware that they are making decisions, sometimes important decisions. Usually they’ve made the decisions by default, by not making a decision. That lack of awareness is usually how you get to the end of a long day wondering: “What did I even accomplish today?!” Upon reflection, you think of a bunch of decisions you made throughout the day that you didn’t realize you’d made, or that you know you could have made better.

Sometimes the decisions are big ones that you might have to unmake tomorrow, but often they are micro-decisions in response to asks sprinkled among all the interactions occurring constantly at work between coworkers: “Could you help me with this?” “Do you have that piece of information?” “Resource?” “Opinion?” Often these questions boil down to: “Will you please do your part so I can do my part?”

Why are so many day-to-day yesses and no’s so sloppy? The No. 1 reason is that most people aren’t very good at asking. They’re not good at framing, explaining, spelling it out, or breaking it down. Sometimes they think they’ve made an ask, and you didn’t even recognize it.

What about you? Maybe you, too, aren’t so good at asking. You need things from your boss, cross-functional counterparts, and individuals on your project teams. Once in a while, you even need something from someone out of the blue. Maybe the ask, whether you are asking or being asked, seems relatively minor in the moment. So when you give—or get—an inadvertent answer, it seems relatively inconsequential. But the sloppy ask so often leads to the sloppy “Yes” or the sloppy “No”:

  • You say, “Yes,” to what looks like a one-off task, such as proofing a colleague’s report on your joint project. But it actually needs a full rewrite and ends up becoming all-consuming. Or you say, “No,” to proofing the report and miss out on a chance to improve how your boss views the project, because the report is such a mess.
  • You say, “No,” to lubricating the machine, but then the machine breaks and you can’t get your work done. Or you say, “Yes,” to lubricating the machine and discover, in the process, that the machine needs a lot more than just grease and fixing it is going to take all day.
  • You say, “Yes,” to helping interview new job candidates and then find out this requires traveling someplace distant and inconvenient. Or you say, “No,” and discover the interviews will be with a group of candidates who might provide a great new perspective, or with candidates who might be great to know going forward. Or you learn that the venue is a beautiful resort in the south of France that might be a fun place to bring your significant other for a tag-on holiday.

You cannot afford sloppy decision-making about how you are going to spend your time at work.

Good Decision-Making Requires Due Diligence

Sam is good at deciding. He tunes in to every ask, respects people’s needs, and takes them very seriously. He rigorously considers his response, whether “Yes” or “No,” because there is nothing like the gift of a good “No.” Often instead of “No,” he says, “Not yet,” and sends people back to fine-tune their ask. Or he waits until he’s tackled other priorities before he gives an answer. Then, when it is time for the “Yes,” Sam sets up every “Yes” for success with a clear plan of action and concrete sequence timing, and he takes ownership of next steps.

If you ask Sam his secret, he’ll tell you he treats every decision as if it’s an important investment decision—because it is. It’s a decision about how he’ll invest some amount of his limited time and energy.

You should do the same: Treat every decision about “Yes” and “No” as a choice about investing your time and energy. If you were making an investment decision in a responsible manner, you would follow a due diligence process. Due diligence is simply a careful investigation of any potential investment to confirm all the relevant facts and seek sufficient information to make an informed judgment so as to prevent unnecessary harm to either party in a transaction. In other words, the process protects both the asker and the party saying, “Yes” or “No.”

Take every request seriously enough to do your due diligence. Every good choice you make now will save you and everybody else so much time and trouble later. And it will make others much more confident in your choices in the future.

Due diligence starts with insisting on a well-defined ask.

If you’re the person asking, make sure you include enough information so the decision-maker can make a better choice. And be prepared to answer more questions about your ask.

If you’re the person being asked, do the following:

1. Start by tuning in to the ask and the person making the request and asking good questions early and often at every step.

2. Know when to say, “No” and “Not yet.”

3. Remember that “Yes” is where all the action is.

Other tips:

  • Take other people’s needs seriously by giving every ask its due diligence.
  • Make better choices sooner. Every good choice now will save everybody so much time and trouble later and will make others more confident in your choices in the future.
  • Tune in to every ask with an intake memo. Ask good questions and build a proposal from the inside out. Use this approach to guide your own asking, too.
  • Learn when to say, “No” (or “Not yet”).

Here are the “No” gates:

  • I simply cannot do it. I don’t have the skill, knowledge, capacity in time, resources, or energy.
  • I’m not allowed to do it. There are procedures and rules that prohibit it.
  • I should not do it. It’s just, on balance, not a good idea.

If the answer is “Not yet,” learn how to say, “Yes,” but remember:

  • Every “Yes” deserves a focused execution plan.
  • You must establish ground rules for working together; a cadence of communication; and a clear sequence, timing, and ownership of all the steps.

Bruce Tulgan is the best-selling author of “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” and the CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done,” is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers on July 21, 2020, from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: rainmakerthinking.com.