Merge's Blog

Have you ever struggled to make a difficult decision ?

difficult decisionA few days ago, I was having a one-on-one discussion with a leader who is facing a difficult decision about whether or not to terminate their relationship with a vendor who is not delivering what is expected, both in terms of service and timeline.  The dilemma is multi-pronged – he doesn’t really want to make the decision (not many people like the conversation that accompanies a termination); he feels his boss should make the decision given that is where most of the complaints are arising; and, he is concerned about whether any of the replacement vendors will be able to deliver what is expected.   His question to me was simple – “How am I going to make this difficult decision?”

The reality of course is that this is not an unusual situation.  As leaders, we are often called upon to make difficult decisions – ones we don’t like, or we don’t want to own, or ones where we don’t see any great alternatives.  Or all three.  And they could be about process concerns, staffing issues, or financial matters.  In circumstances such as these, there is a four-step process you can turn to.

Make your difficult decision using a four-step process

Step 1: Accept that you don’t like the situation.  That you don’t want anything to do with it.  Or that there are no great options.  If necessary, acknowledge all three.  And continue to do so for as long as you want, BUT also recognize that it has absolutely no bearing on the decision that you need to make.

Step 2: Invoke the financial concept of “sunk costs”.  A sunk cost is one that has already been incurred and that cannot be recovered.  In economic decision making, sunk costs are treated as long-gone, and are not taken into consideration when making a decision.  So, in other words, ignore everything you’ve done or invested so far in terms of effort, emotional energy, time, or money.  I’m not saying they’re not important, I’m saying that they have absolutely no bearing on the decision that you need to make.

Step 3:  Write out your options.  None of them will likely be ideal or perfect.  And they will most certainly not be appealing.  But they are what you have to work with.  That’s why it’s called a difficult decision.

Step 4:  Analyze each option in terms of the future.  That’s right, the future, definitely NOT the past.  Overlook how you feel, ignore the sunk costs, just determine which of the possible alternatives will give you the least pain in the future – days, weeks, months, even years – and that’s the one you should choose.  Make your decision, and without regret.

It works!

This was the four-step process I gave to my client.  He set aside his personal misgivings.  He let go of his disappointment that the efforts he’d previously made to help this vendor succeed were not effective.  He made a list of possible replacement vendors.  And he selected the one that would meet the most criteria, and therefore should cause the least angst in the future.  Decision made, and yes, he also promised me that he wouldn’t fall into the “shoulda-coulda-woulda” trap.

There are some decisions that can be very difficult to make.  I’d love to know if you find this process helpful or not?  What is your approach to making difficult decisions? Please share, so that we can learn from one another.  Add your comment below.

I often blog about approaches to solve problems and make decisions.  If you’re interested in some more tips, look under our Problem Solving category.


  • Thanks for this article Merge! I am a similar situation as this with a team member that is not performing where we need him to be. I really like how you outlined the “sunk costs”, as this is a cost that has held me back in making difficult decisions in the past and present. When it comes to dealing with team members not involving emotions is my biggest challenge, being a small business owner you get to know the team member and their family.
    I am going to use this as part of my approach to dealing with team members and vendors.
    Thanks again

    • You’re welcome Tim, I’m glad you found this tip helpful. I agree with you, it’s very difficult when the decision you have to make has emotional ties to it. But difficult decisions comes with being a leader …


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