Whether you’re a first-time intern or president and CEO, decision-making is a crucial component of success at every rung on the career ladder. Companies rely on top talent to keep the business moving with quick, thoughtful decisions—from small, individual choices about the best way to tackle your to-do list to major strategic overhauls that affect the entire organization.
“Different employers look for various skills and strengths depending on their job requirements, but all organizations seek decision-making skills,” says executive career consultant Susan Peppercorn. Recruiters and hiring managers are looking to assess decision-making skills for just about every role they need to fill. Your ability to develop and maintain those skills, and also show them off as a candidate, can make or break your chances at landing that dream job—and then, of course, determine whether or not you succeed in it.
What Are Decision-Making Skills and Why Are They Important at Work?
Decision-making skills hinge on your “ability to see, understand, and articulate the outcomes of actions,” says executive coach Debbie Radish-Respess. They help you quickly and efficiently analyze a situation so you can choose paths that will ultimately lead to the best possible outcomes.
Radish-Respess had to fine-tune her own decision-making skills in her years working in human resources, five of which she spent as a VP, before transitioning into executive and leadership coaching. One of the things she learned is that it isn’t enough to simply know which decision to make; you also have to be able to communicate potential outcomes in order to convince other team members and leaders that your choices are the most sound. When an employee is able to do both, all aspects of the business (from financial to operational to interpersonal) benefit.
“Whether it’s a question of deciding which candidate to hire, which consultant to use, what project to implement or product to develop, having the capacity to make the best decision is critical for an organization’s success,” says Peppercorn, who has become a bit of a decision-making expert herself, building her own business guiding professionals in their careers. “Employees who can demonstrate the ability to identify all the options and compare both cost and effectiveness have an advantage over those who can’t.”
But it’s not just about the company. It’s also about you. Decision-making skills are crucial in helping you figure out what jobs you even want—and in successfully going after those opportunities. In other words, these skills will help you land jobs, thrive at work, and enable your team and organization to meet goals, sure. But they’ll also help you navigate your career and steer it in the directions that are meaningful and fulfilling for you.
When Do You Need Decision-Making Skills in Your Career?
There are countless work-related scenarios in which decision-making skills come in handy. One of the first is the hiring process—on both sides.
Hiring managers are constantly having to evaluate the qualifications each candidate has and which set of skills might be a better fit for the role that needs to be filled, Radish-Respess says. At the same time, candidates are typically doing the same thing—assessing whether or not a position and company are right for them. The decision-making skills of everyone involved in a typical job search scenario could mean the difference between an engaged and productive employee, and a person who is miserable in a job they merely took for a paycheck.
From choosing the right format for your resume to selecting a contractor to help complete your next project, decision-making skills are a crucial component to succeeding in both the job search and your career.
Other common work-related scenarios where decision-making comes into play might include:
- Organizing a team and assigning roles and responsibilities
- Making a go-no-go decision on a project
- Determining which strategy to use to meet company goals and how to execute it
- Creating a work-from-home policy
- Selecting board members
- Picking when—and what—to delegate
- Responding appropriately to an upset customer
- Fixing a production problem as soon as it’s discovered
What Steps Can You Use to Make Any Decision?
Peppercorn explains that there are six important steps in the decision-making process:
1. Define the Problem, Challenge, or Opportunity
The decisions we make in our day-to-day lives and careers are most often responses to problems or opportunities we may be presented with. For instance, if you’re searching for a job, your problem may be narrowing down current opportunities. Or if you’re assembling a team for a new project, your problem may be choosing team members who will work well together.
Whatever the situation may be, you first need to identify what the goal of the decision is. When responding to an upset customer, for example, the goal is probably to have them leave the conversation feeling like their problem has been resolved or their voice has been heard. Whereas if you’re creating a hybrid work strategy, your goal may be to balance employee happiness, productivity, and collaboration.
Before you start exploring different steps and strategies, make sure you’re clear on what you’re trying to achieve—and let that objective guide you throughout the rest of the process.
2. Generate Several Possible Solutions or Responses
Once you’ve defined the problem, challenge, or opportunity your decision will hopefully address, you can begin to think about possible solutions. In the job search, this could mean establishing a list of available job openings in your career field. And on the job, it could mean first pulling together the list of people who are available for your project.
How you develop that list of solutions depends entirely on what your goal may be, but in most cases it involves looking at the decision that needs to be made from as many angles as possible and allowing yourself the time to brainstorm options—either alone or in a group.
You might want or need to get input from others while in the early stages, Radish-Respess says. “Decisions may be based on a client outcome, an organizational strategy, or a department project,” she explains, and you’ll need information and insights from your colleagues. Plus, we aren’t always equipped to recognize our own biases or limitations, but a team approach can help to ensure you explore all avenues.
In some cases, you may also have to ask yourself if you have the authority to make this decision on our own. For example, you may need to bring your supervisor into the decision-making process and make a judgment about when. Perhaps you need to turn to your boss at the very beginning to confirm you’re reaching for the right goal or to ask them to be involved in the brainstorming phase or you may be able to simply share your suggested solution for approval.
3. Evaluate the Costs and Benefits, or Pros and Cons, Associated With Each Option
Once you’ve generated several possible ways forward, it’s time to examine each one more closely. Evaluating your options could be as simple as creating a pro/con list for each or as detailed as designing a scoring metric that allows you to rate each choice based on your pre-determined list of desires.
When it comes to looking for a job, for example, it doesn’t usually make sense to apply to every opening you find. Not only are there likely to be at least a few that aren’t a good fit, it’s also harder to tailor your resume and personalize your cover letter when you are applying to 50 jobs as opposed to five. So instead of taking your initial list and applying everywhere, you’d be better off taking some time to narrow down your options and to apply only to the positions that you might be the best fit for. You might select three to five things you are looking for in your next role (salary, location, flexibility, etc.) and then rank all potential openings based on those categories.
Similarly, if you were looking to put together a team for an important project, look at the qualifications of each candidate available to join your team, and consider carefully how those skills might fit together in different combinations. For each potential grouping, you might go through a checklist of the skill sets you need, consider how those employees would work together, and weigh the benefits of each worker’s participation against the cost of them deprioritizing other tasks.
4. Select a Solution or Response
In a perfect world, the obvious answer would appear after a little evaluation. And sometimes, that’s exactly what happens: One choice is clearly better than all the others.
In the real world, however, you’re often faced with choices that have comparable appeals and drawbacks. For instance, you might be offered two jobs: one in the exact field you want to work in, but for about $10,000 less a year than you want to make, and the other offering your goal salary, but with the caveat being that you would have to relocate. Neither choice fulfills everything, but both provide something, at which point you have to decide which one comes closest to being what you want. This may mean you have to drill your original pros and cons list down further, ranking each category by level of importance to you. Or it could mean adding additional categories you hadn’t initially considered, like room for growth or position prestige.
You may have to keep tweaking your evaluation methods until the right decision becomes clear—or at a certain point, you may have to simply select one path and move forward with it.
5. Implement the Option You’ve Chosen
When making important decisions, it is always important to commit. Don’t allow yourself to look back at the other options you could have chosen, or to what-if yourself into inaction and failure. Instead, commit to the choice you’ve settled on and focus on implementing the steps necessary to make it a success.
6. Assess the Impact of the Decision and Modify the Course of Action as Needed
Of course, committing doesn’t mean you can’t course-correct when necessary. What seemed like your dream job could turn out to be a nightmare if your direct supervisor is a bully. And what appeared to be the perfect solution for an upset customer could backfire if they’ve been offered the same solution in the past and aren’t satisfied.
Give yourself room to monitor your progress and to switch lanes if necessary. That doesn’t mean looking back. It just means starting from where you’re at and finding another way to get to where you want to be if your current choice isn’t getting you there.
What Are Some Examples of Decision-Making Skills?
As you work through the decision-making steps, you may wonder what types of skills actually make a person a strong decision maker. Here are a few of the key skills you’ll need:
- Problem-solving: Understanding the variables that influence the decision is crucial, as is understanding the impact of each decision you might make, Radish-Respess says. Being able to evaluate and solve a problem is the basis for making most decisions.
- Judgement: Of course, you can’t adequately evaluate anything without sound judgment. The ability to look at a situation clearly, identify potential problems and solutions, be aware of potential biases, and predict outcomes and repercussions will help you make better decisions.
- Intuition: Trusting your instincts can be a good start, Radish-Respess says. Our instincts are often based on our real-life experiences and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. We don’t always have a lot of time to make decisions, and in those moments when quick thinking is necessary, our intuition can be incredibly valuable.
- Teamwork: Collaboration, trust, and respect help teams make critical decisions, Radish-Respess says. When focusing on client deliverables, for instance, you must work with the client, and often other team members, to figure out what the client is looking for, how to best meet their needs, and how to improve the overall quality of the project. So many decisions you make at work require input from colleagues and approval from above as you work toward shared goals, and strong working relationships can help make the process as smooth and effective as possible, even when you disagree.
- Emotional intelligence: Like intuition, our emotions can often serve as a guide for where we need to go. When you’re hit with a burst of excitement, or a sudden wave of panic, it can be worth listening to those emotions and following them where they may lead. But it goes beyond self-awareness. When you’re working with a team to make an important decision, being attuned to others’ emotions and reactions can help you gather the right information, evaluate the options, and ultimately select a way forward.
- Time management: Scheduling, project management, and deadlines help decision-makers address the most pressing issues, challenges, and projects in a timely manner, Radish-Respess says. When you know what your deadline is, you can identify the steps necessary to reach your goal on time. This also allows you to track your progress and speed up or slow down your decision-making process as necessary. Because let’s be honest: Your well-thought out decision loses all value if you make it too late to matter.
How Can You Improve Your Decision-Making Skills?
It’s one thing to recognize the importance of decision-making skills, it’s another entirely to evaluate and improve your own. But that’s exactly what you need to do if you want to hone this skill set into an asset you can rely on both on and off the job.
The best ways to improve your decision-making skills often involve seeking out learning opportunities, Radish-Respess says, such as:
- Taking a decision-making course: Believe it or not, there are online courses for everything these days, including soft skills like decision-making. You can look for options on Udemy, Coursera, and LinkedIn Learning, and other online learning platforms.
- Working with a coach: If you’re looking to tackle a really major decision or are otherwise hoping for more personalized guidance, you might consider turning to a career coach who’s an expert in helping people with job search strategy, for example, or even to a decision coach more specifically.
- Reflecting on past decisions: When reflecting on past decisions, Radish-Respess suggests asking yourself some important questions: What did I do well? What decision could I have made instead of the one I did make? How many options were available that I didn’t take into consideration at the time? What did I like about the result? What did I not like about the result?
- Practicing: The more you flex your decision-making skills, the more confident you will become in your ability to make those important decisions when the time comes. Like anything else, these are skills you have to use in order to grow and maintain them. Even if you’re an entry-level employee, you can practice your decision-making skills by approaching your boss with proposed solutions instead of just presenting them with the problem or challenge. They may not always agree, but you’ll learn immensely from the process.
- Asking questions and getting input from others: As part of your practice, don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice—whether it’s from your manager or someone else involved in a particular decision or from a trusted colleague or mentor whose decision-making skills you admire. Hearing how others would approach a particular decision will help inform how you might do so in the future.
How Do You Show Off Your Decision-Making Skills During the Job Search?
Your decision-making skills are something you should be flaunting while searching for your next job (and if you’re still looking for roles to apply to, you can find hundreds of thousands of job openings on The Muse!). After all, hiring managers and recruiters are looking for employees who possess exactly the abilities you’ve worked so hard to gain. You can put them forward when you’re:
Building Your Resume
Numbers are important, Radish-Respess says. Any percentages, dollars, time frames, or numbers of clients served that can demonstrate the value of your decision-making skills should be highlighted here.
In other words: You don’t want to simply write “excellent decision maker” on your resume. You want to actually show what that means in terms of results wherever possible. And you can do that by writing quantified bullet points that highlight not just duties but also accomplishments.
Personalizing the Cover Letter
“Cover letters provide an opportunity to address the posted job description with a short anecdote that shows your decision-making skills and how they align with the needs of that company,” Radish-Respess says.
So let’s say the job description calls for someone who can think quickly under pressure. This would be a perfect place to tell a story about a time you had to do just that, relying on your decision-making skills to guide you.
Nailing the Interview
You can use your cover letter to paint a picture, and then your interview to connect the dots, further detailing how your decision-making skills have benefited you and your employers in the past.
One of the best ways you can show off your decision-making skills at the interview phase is by providing examples of how you’ve used them in the past, Radish-Respess says. “Did you perform an interview with a client to get a better understanding of their needs and therefore [increase] a project scope and revenue?” she asked. “Did you lead a team in which you chose the members?” And in doing so, did your team successfully complete their goals or work together in a way that was notable?
If the hiring manager’s decision-making skills are as strong as yours, they’ll recognize what a mistake it would be to let another company scoop you up.