Balance courage and empathy when making tough business decisions

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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount Universitya comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.

Covid-19 brought many leadership lessons. One of the biggest lessons is how important it is to pivot and stay flexible as we work to regain our footing in a radically changing world. Prioritizing growth and embracing transformative change in this dynamic environment is necessary to navigate uncertainty and stay ahead. Successful leadership in today’s tumultuous environment requires a willingness to think differently and take risks – while keeping an eye on the future. Business growth can be complicated and takes equal parts courage and empathy.

Leaders today are pressured to be brave and make tough decisions. From my recent experience, I can confirm that decisions that help organizations transform are often complex and unpopular. Take, for example, the current spate of layoffs at technology companies. Data shows more than 168,000 jobs were lost among tech companies in the first four months of 2023, compared to more than 164,000 jobs throughout 2022. Losing work is excruciatingly painful for everyone involved.

As a leader in higher education, I have experienced pain and vulnerability alongside my students, faculty, and staff. During the height of Covid-19, I made thousands of difficult decisions – and in many cases it was not possible to make everyone happy. For example, when we were allowed to reopen the university, we decided to return to face-to-face teaching or stay online. Many students preferred face-to-face teaching, while many professors preferred online teaching.

Difficult decisions may leave some people dissatisfied, but leadership calls for prioritizing the organization. In such scenarios, leaders need to ask themselves why their decision is leaning in a certain direction and what information might influence their decision-making process. This can pave the way for shared decision-making. I rely only on necessary data and methodical thinking to make decisions as an engineer. Using structured decision-making processes and having the required expertise can alleviate anxiety when questions arise about how you arrived at a certain conclusion.

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Don’t apologize for making unpopular decisions.

There is little you can do to change the mind of those within your organization who are dissatisfied when things don’t go their way. I know how hard it is to see disapproval in the eyes of employees, but leaders have tough decisions to make. Once a decision is final, there’s no point in tearing apart your thought process. Acknowledge its negative impact on your people and show empathy for their pain. It is possible to lead with compassion while staying steadfast to organizational goals. Taking responsibility for a decision shows integrity, so stay firm while scaring the hell out of dissatisfied people.

That said, don’t hesitate or argue with others about your reasoning. Leadership is an important role, and it’s not easy. Remember that it is impossible to please everyone. Difficult decisions almost always involve hurt feelings and lead to some degree of disagreement.

Hold people accountable for bad behavior.

Early in my career, I was a college professor with the intention of broadening minds and helping my students grow into the next generation of innovators. I loved teaching – there are few roles more fulfilling than supporting students as they grow intellectually and socially. To create a positive atmosphere in my class, I emphasized the need for mutual respect. We had to cover a lot of ground – STEM courses involve learning complex material. My students knew my expectations were high, and almost all of them rose to the challenge by studying hard and concentrating in class.

I remember one student who was the exception: he was unhappy and made it difficult for the students around him to focus and concentrate from day one. I calmly explained to him privately that I would not tolerate his disruptive behavior. As a professor, I was responsible for providing my students with a calm learning environment. As a university president, the same applies to team members: they are held responsible for disruptive behaviour.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to clarify that while people are entitled to their opinions, you expect nothing less than civil and professional behaviour. Disruptive behavior can weaken team morale and create a stressful work environment. Make sure your employees understand that there will be consequences for toxic behavior.

Restore morale and reward positive behavior.

Likewise, it is important to recognize and reward those who stand by your side during difficult times. When faced with a difficult choice, express your gratitude to your employees who are willing to rely on your leadership. When your employees unite with a determined spirit to move forward, look for ways to reward their dedication and support. From a heartfelt thank you note to kind gestures, how you respond to their encouragement and support can positively change morale and motivate your organization.

Don’t forget to model strength and confidence as a leader. At the same time, it’s okay to let your employees know that you feel deeply hurt because you’ve been treated with hostility for making unpopular but absolutely necessary decisions.

Acknowledge pain and practice daily self-care.

When tensions run high, you quickly feel like you have to present yourself as invincible to your team. However, leaders are only human too; we are not immune to pain from hostile actions or words. None of us are above experiencing hurt feelings caused by malice or aggression. Chronic stress is hard on the mind and body, so prioritize daily activities that help you recharge and de-stress. Communicate with nature or do strength training – anything to give yourself space to breathe freely.

If you can’t figure it out, seek support. Connect with other leaders in similar roles, seek guidance from mentors, and consider professional guidance. We see a huge increase in the need for mental health support since the start of the pandemic – leaders are not immune to experiencing struggle.

Always lead with integrity and don’t be afraid to let your people know that you too feel the impact of difficult but necessary decisions.


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