Barack Obama’s Guide to Making Tough Decisions at Work

Add these communication tips to your problem-solving toolkit.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 21:  U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the BET's 'Love and Happiness: A Musical Experience" in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House October 21, 2016 in Washington, DC. The show will feature performances by Usher, Jill Scott, Common, The Roots, Bell Biv DeVoe, Janelle Monae, De La Soul, Yolanda Adams, Michelle Williams and Kiki Sheard, along will appearances by actors Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse Williams and Angela Bassett.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 21: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the BET's 'Love and Happiness: A Musical Experience" in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House October 21, 2016 in Washington, DC. The show will feature performances by Usher, Jill Scott, Common, The Roots, Bell Biv DeVoe, Janelle Monae, De La Soul, Yolanda Adams, Michelle Williams and Kiki Sheard, along will appearances by actors Samuel L. Jackson, Jesse Williams and Angela Bassett. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Plenty of workers are expected to solve problems that seem unsolvable — but perhaps none more than the Presidency. As he told an audience in Salt Lake City, former President Barack Obama developed a workplace structure that helped him put out fires with confidence and communicate next steps effectively to his employees. Here are some of his strategies that are useful for leaders in any workplace.

Accept that when it comes to tricky decisions, there’s rarely 100 percent certainty.

Obama encourages leaders to recognize that decision-making is often a game of chance. He understands this well, as many of the problems he and his team were tasked with solving in the White House “didn’t have a good solution.” In situations that feel like a lose-lose, he urges leaders to be “comfortable with the fact that you’re not going to get [a] 100 percent solution.” Instead, he suggests “understanding that you’re dealing with probabilities, so that you don’t get paralyzed trying to think that you’re going to actually solve this perfectly.”

Recruit the smartest people, with the most diverse set of perspectives, to be on your team.

One of the reasons he’s comfortable with probability, Obama explains, is that he’s confident in the expertise of his team. “If I had set up a good process in which I could get all the information, all the data, all perspectives, if I knew that I had around the table all the angles… then I could feel confident that even if I didn’t get a perfect answer, that I was making the best decision that anybody in my situation could make.” This step is critical, he explains. Mindful communication with your team — hearing their candid responses to a particular issue that you’re all facing together — can help you make the most informed possible decision. Indeed, research has shown that businesses, and business leaders, are more effective when they solicit others’ opinions to test their hypotheses instead of simply making untested, unilateral calls.

Ask your team questions to help you make an informed decision.

Some leaders may feel that if they’re not omniscient, they’re not effective — but Obama disagrees. What’s the point of having teammates if you don’t lean on them for support? This is especially crucial when you don’t understand all the moving parts of a problem you’re charged with solving, he says. “I always would say to somebody, if they’re talking about a really complicated issue, ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying. Explain it to me in [plain] English.’” It’s always OK to press a colleague for clarity, and make sure you’re expressly clear on their perspective. Instead of feigning knowledge you don’t have, don’t be afraid to admit where you could use their help and additional explanation.

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