Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 47;   November 21, 2007: Difficult Decisions

Difficult Decisions

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest, yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
Archibald Cox, Special Watergate Prosecutor

Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, at a press conference at the Justice Department on June 4, 1973. A former law student of his, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, later appointed him Watergate Special Prosecutor. On July 23, 1973, Cox subpoenaed the tapes of presidential conversations that had been discovered in the Senate investigation. After attempting to work around the subpoena, the President on October 19 ordered Richardson to fire Cox, but Richardson refused and resigned, as did his second-in-command, William Ruckleshaus. The man third in line, Robert Bork, then agreed to dismiss Cox. Richardson, Ruckleshaus, and Bork all faced difficult decisions. Unable to find an ethical path that aligned with Nixon's order, Richardson and Ruckleshaus chose to stand aside. History is probably still evaluating the three men's decisions, but for now, it is looking more kindly on the choice to resign. Few of us face choices of historical consequence, but we must live with the choices we make. May you always make choices that you can live with, and easily. Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

When deciding is easy, we decide so quickly that we hardly notice we've made a decision. When we identify an activity as a decision, we usually do so because the deciding part is hard. That might be why so many "decisions" seem difficult.

Sometimes, when a decision is difficult, the source of the difficulty lies beyond the issue itself. Here are some situations that can make deciding difficult.

Personal conflicts of interest
Whether the decision has personal consequences for the decider or for another, concerns about conflicts of interest can make deciding difficult. We worry about accusations of vendetta, revenge, favoritism, or corruption, even as we struggle to find an ethical path.
If you can take the personal consequences out of the decision, the decision itself is usually clear. The real problem then becomes dealing with those personal consequences. If you can't find a way to separate out those consequences, perhaps you aren't the person who ought to be making that decision.
Organizational conflicts of interest
Sometimes the conflict of interest arises from your affiliation with an organizational element, or a history of toxic conflict between your organizational element and others.
The effects of organizational conflicts of interest are similar to those of personal conflicts of interest, though they're usually less intense. It's usually best to either find a way to don the statesman's hat, taking the part of the whole organization, or stand aside.
All your choices are bad
Even when all your choices are bad, the deciding usually isn't the hard part. The challenges are accepting that there is no good outcome, and learning to live with whatever ickiness you chose.
Before you make the decision, be certain that you've examined all the possible choices. Abandon dogma and cherished beliefs to expand the range of choices you're willing to think about. Once you've done that, even if you uncover no good solution, acceptance of the least undesirable outcome is a little easier.

When we're confused about the source of the difficulty in making a decision, we struggle with the decision itself, and that isn't as likely to produce a viable outcome. It's usually best to determine what the problem is first. Solving something else is less likely to lead to a solution.

Once we When all your choices are bad,
the deciding usually isn't the hard
part. The challenge is accepting
that there is no good outcome.
understand the source of difficulty, the decision itself can suddenly become clear. We then know what choice to make, and the problem then becomes figuring out how to deal with the consequences of that choice.

Watch for a chance to observe a group struggling with a tough decision. Is the decision itself the source of the difficulty, or does the difficulty arise from the consequences of the decision? When the difficulty does lie elsewhere, how can you help? Go to top Top  Next issue: Social Safety Margins  Next Issue

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