When Is It OK to Delay a Decision?

There are certain choices you must make. Whether it’s deciding what to eat when you’re hungry, where to sleep when you’re tired, or what to wear for the occasion, those are simple, straightforward, and everyday decisions. You make them so quickly and succinctly that you don't even think about them.

But what about those not-so-everyday decisions such as if the job opportunity in front of you is the right one, the person you’re dating is the one you should marry, or how will you approach retirement? Those decisions have implications that are deep and wide. They demand careful thought and attention, but a delay for too long will likely result in the opportunity passing you by.

There is a certain school of leadership that believes action is always better than inaction. While I would generally agree with this, there are times when stepping back, building time in for reflection, and even waiting out the situation to evolve further can be a wise choice. I know you probably think I'm inconsistent. I can understand how it may seem like that. But I can assure you I'm not.

SOMETIMES “NOT NOW” IS A LEGITIMATE CHOICE

I remember when the kids were young, and they desperately wanted a new video game that was being advertised; they wanted it right then and there. Of course, your concept of time as a child is a little different than that as an adult. Even waiting a day can seem like an eternity.

They wanted it bad. I got "the pitch" every time I stepped in the door. I have to give them credit for their tenacious attempt to persuade me. But the problem was it was close to Christmas. It didn't make sense to buy that for them at that moment when my wife and I could wait a month and make it part of our Christmas list.

They didn't think my reasonable explanation of the proximity of Christmas was a very good one. While that was hard for them to understand, eventually they accepted the fact that I wasn't going to buy it for them on their timetable. (And just so you know, we did get it for them for Christmas, and they loved it as much as they would have had I bought it the moment they asked.)

WHEN “NOT NOW” IS A GOOD DECISION

This can be a tricky one to figure out because you must be sure your intent is not to avoid a decision but to delay it. Here are some tips you can use to distinguish the difference between the two:

·      You don’t have all the information you need. I’ve made most of my mistakes rushing to a decision. Take a deep breath and make sure you have all the necessary details you need to make the best decision.

·      You don’t have everyone involved in the decision on board. Leaders lead people, not projects. You build people when you get their input on how to approach or accomplish something.

·      You don’t have an immediate consequence for delaying the decision. Even if it’s an important decision, the lack of an immediate consequence gives you some space to process, reflect, and decide.

·      You need to resolve another matter first. If the fuel line in your car is leaking, the fact you need new tires isn’t relevant. Until you fix the fuel line, it really wouldn’t make sense to replace the tires. Prioritization is important.

·      The situation is likely to resolve itself on its own. Many young leaders try to inject themselves into a situation when they need to wait to see if it will resolve itself.

The difference between avoiding a decision and choosing “not now” is key for you to understand. Avoiding a decision is not accepting responsibility for what is in your purview of leadership. Choosing “not now” is a strategic decision that, when carefully applied, can be a very effective leadership tactic.

HOW TO HANDLE A “NOT NOW” DECISION

·      Consider the contextual clues surrounding your decision. Context is key. It's important that every leadership decision is made within the context of the decision itself.

·      Record notes about your decision. Don’t think you’ll remember all the details. Write it in a notebook—paper or digital. This will help you reference again at some point in the future.

·      Set a time to review the situation and your decision at some point in the future. Don’t expect you will just remember it. You’ll forget. The best way to handle this is to put a date on your calendar with yourself.

·      Be clear with your logic with anyone else it involves. This is key to ensure you have alignment with the people around you, especially if they hold an interest in the situation itself.

So the answer is yes, it’s OK to delay a decision. A decision of “not now” can be just as effective and empowering as a yes or no. Just choose that option wisely; otherwise, you’ll fall into the decision avoidance trap.

REFLECT: Can you make room for a "not now" decision in your leadership? Is there something on your proverbial desk right now that you are rushing toward a decision when you just need to decide to say "not now"? How can you distinguish between "decision avoidance" and choosing "not now"?