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Stop Second-Guessing Your Decisions at Work

Nov. 6, 2015 Harvard Business Review

You’ve finally made a decision. Time to cross it off your list and move on. Or not? Do you find yourself revisiting every decision you make, agonizing over whether it really was the right one?

What the Experts Say
Everyone has moments of doubt. But “constant second-guessing can really affect your leadership — and the perception of your leadership among other people,” says Sydney Finkelstein, faculty director of Dartmouth’s Tuck Center for Leadership and the author of the forthcoming book, Superbosses. It can also do unintended harm. “If you are excessively second-guessing a hire you’ve made, for instance, you are actually reducing the likelihood of that hire being successful,” says Finkelstein. “There is a risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy.” And that’s not all. “Second-guessing also has a real productivity impact,” says Amy Jen Su, co-founder of executive leadership development firm Paravis Partners and coauthor of Own the Room. “When you’re spinning on a decision, you’re not moving forward. You’re just sitting in this purgatory of second-guessing.” Here’s how to stop looking back with regret.

Get some perspective
Ask yourself: How big a decision was this really? What are the stakes now? “There are a lot of decisions where the costs of being wrong are actually not that big,” says Finkelstein. If you’re juggling other more important decisions and issues, “why spend another minute wondering about the ‘what ifs’?” he says. “Remind yourself that worrying is taking time away from the bigger things you have to deal with.” That exercise alone can help soothe your anxiety.

Check your gut
If you initially aren’t feeling confident about a chosen path, don’t discount where your intuition has led you. “Trusting your gut can be absolutely useful, valuable, and appropriate,” says Finkelstein. “It can cut down on a ton of time.” Both Finkelstein and Su suggest maintaining a kind of “acknowledgment practice,” which might involve keeping a journal of recent decisions. Hopefully, you’ll find that your intuition has led you in the right direction over time and that even when you made mistakes, they were easily corrected. Reviewing decisions in this way should help you become more self-assured, reducing the likelihood that you’ll second-guess needlessly.

Poll a group of “advisers”
If checking your gut still doesn’t give you the confidence that you’ve made the right decision, ask around for advice. “Have a group of people who are your sounding boards” and seek their input, says Su. “Say, ‘Here’s what I was thinking. What am I not taking into consideration here?’ That will help you better understand what it is that’s causing you to worry.” It can be particularly helpful to stock this informal panel with people who have experience dealing with similar issues or who can bring new perspectives to the table. Their wisdom can help you feel more comfortable with your chosen path.

Get comfortable with adjustments
Few decisions are irreversible. But, in our quest to make the best ones, we tend to forget that. “There’s a real tyranny to trying to be perfect,” says Finkelstein. “It’s important to remember that you can’t possibly be right about everything.” And in nearly every scenario, chances are “you can fix and adjust it,” he says. Su agrees. “When we pretend that decisions are final, we paralyze ourselves. It’s OK to make mistakes. Moving forward is what’s important.”

Make a date to check in
One of the best ways to stop questioning a decision in the moment is to make a plan to formally review it at a later date. It could be in a few weeks, or a few months — whatever feels appropriate. Add a reminder to your calendar. “The point is that you can set into place a very simple monitoring mechanism,” says Finkelstein. “That greatly reduces the risk of the consequences of your decision going off-track, and you don’t have to be so crazed in the meantime by second-guessing.”

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