First-time people manager: how to make tough decisions based on moral values.

In today’s climate, leaders and people managers have to make decisions rapidly. Many of these choices do not have clear-cut solutions. Hard decisions are never easy to make. They require maturity and level-headedness that some people struggle to achieve. Making a hard decision often has emotional consequences for yourself or others, which can make you unpopular among your peers. For these reasons, making tough choices is likely one of the least favorite parts of being a manager or leader–especially during trying times for the company or when your team is under immense pressure. For example:

  • Standing up for a junior team member in front of your boss.
  • Not promoting or giving a bonus to someone with whom you have an excellent personal relationship.
  • Deciding/communicating about a steep budget cut or layoff.
  • Acknowledging your own mistake in front of your bosses and your team members.
  • Deciding to tell the truth even though it would make you look weak or show that you are wrong.
  • Making a U-turn from a wrong decision that you have made.

Many managers try to delay their decisions/actions or even “run away” from making them. Some are coming up with all kinds of excuses to justify their procrastination. According to Ron Carucci in the article “Leaders, Stop Avoiding Hard Decisions”, reasons like “I’m considerate of others”, “I’m committed to quality and accuracy” or “I want to be seen as fair” are commonly used to procrastinate. The last one is easy to fall for since, as a manager/leader, you are often required to make decisions when the information is incomplete i.e., making a judgment call. 

How to develop the ability to make tough moral decisions

I have a few suggestions: 

  • Define your core values- the ones that really matter to you and make up who you are as a person. These should be the cornerstone of your internal value system.
  • Understand your organization’s values and culture. These values will act as the guiding light for you to know what the general direction should be.
  • Many times you may find yourself start wondering about the personal/political cost you would endure by making these decisions, which is a fair consideration. This is especially tough when you are a junior manager and still not sure about your place in the world. There is no right or wrong here. Unfortunately, you have to learn through experience.
  • Try to start with making smaller decisions early in your career.
  • Consider the second and third consequences. This means we go beyond the most immediate potential impact and consider the next levels of impact.

Making tough decisions based on moral values is not easy. It requires a lot of self-reflection, consideration, and courage from the people making them. However, making these decisions with integrity will help build trust and respect in your team over time. With practice and confidence, making tough decisions can become easier, making you a more effective leader in the long run. Good luck.


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