Making smart career decisions when you don’t have clarity

Recently, I’ve heard the same question from coaching clients across industries and levels: “I need to make an important work decision and I am stuck. Can you help?”

These days, many of us are facing uncertainty in organizations. Making quick, important decisions in this context can be a challenge. Today, I want to explore the common struggles we face when making big career decisions.

Change management initiatives, transformation plans, cross-team integration taskforce…whatever verbiage your company uses, SHIFT will likely hit the fan. Perhaps we are adjusting to a new role, a new function, a new boss, or new team dynamics… Along the way, both the organization and we will have to make decisions. We may be considering a new offer, deciding whether to stay or leave, what and when to negotiate, or even if a new career move makes sense.

Often how we process information (or lack thereof) can derail our decision process. Identify what’s hindering us can help us find clarity.


Career decision paradoxes

Picture this: Virginia is a successful and ambitious project manager. A senior manager role is opening in her department. She has submitted her name for consideration but feels anxiety around whether she should take the role if offered.

While Paul’s consulting business today is flourishing, he wonders if he should re-join a larger organization to gain an official “VP” title. Paul anticipates an offer to join one of his favorite clients in an internal role, and fees conflicted.

Priyanka has an envious Director position. She’s a busy executive and mum of two young ones, has a traveling husband, and recently resumed work travel herself. She feels a career change may be in order but can’t figure out what she wants to do next.

Despite varied contexts and personal situations, common themes run through these scenarios. I call them “paradoxes.”


Paradox 1: Making decisions with only half the story.

Each client here is attempting to make a decision based on partial information. Virginia feels stuck wanting to decide on a new role but isn’t sure if the role will even be offered. Paul has not had any real conversations with his clients and assumes a VP title will add to his credibility. Priyanka hasn’t considered what she wants; She’s just unhappy where she is.

Instead of taking time to understand what information is missing, we often jump to resolutions…without having information or asking questions that would help move us closer to our decisions. Answering “what if…” only helps if a person on the other end can fill in the blanks.


Paradox 2: Running to solutions without really knowing “where the shoe hurts”

“I think I’d like to leave my job, but don’t know what to do instead.”

Many of us think we want out, without taking the time to deconstruct the current situation holistically. It’s important to know what works and what doesn’t, and if the situation is ‘fixable’ or not. We often rush to solutions…sometimes as dramatic as a complete career change.

Even if changing career might be the best option, it is important to understand what motivates that desire before giving room for it to expand. Often, we “throw the baby out with the bath water,” rather than exploring all the components of a job and our lives outside the job. Perhaps if one or two issues were fixed, our job would suddenly become satisfactory.


Paradox 3: Relinquishing decisions to those causing the uncertainties

“I have been waiting for leadership’s decision for months. I presented plans, proposed ideas, and I can’t get any clarity from stakeholders. I feel pressured and paralyzed. I have a choice between digging my grave deeper in this project or burning out.”

Sometimes, the problem IS the solution. Einstein once wrote, “Madness is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.” If you’re trying the same approach multiple times and getting nowhere, or worse, aggravating the situation, it may be time to take a new approach, versus abdicating the decision-making power to others.


Gaining clarity: 3 simple steps to counter our paradoxes

First, identify the missing information. Ask the tough questions and get the full story. Don’t waste time in your own thoughts! Assumptions need to be validated or discounted to move ahead.

Second, take time to get to the root cause before going down “the rabbit hole.” Be curious. Separate your complaints from the core problem.

Finally, trade ‘relinquishing control’ for ‘tactically controlled’ by making smaller, more manageable decisions you own and have control over.

Whatever the decision – in our career, business or life— the decision process can paralyze us. By considering HOW we make a decision, and understanding the influence of these paradoxes, we can more comfortably, and more easily, identify the blockages as a first step to remove them.



Marie-Laure is a systemic coach and brief therapy practitioner certified by the Gregory Bateson Institute, Lausanne-Paris-Liege. She helps her clients address work/ life challenges, remove roadblocks by expanding a range of solutions for true sustained change. In organizations, she develops bespoke coaching interventions using the systemic problem-solving model. Marie-Laure is based in Dubai and has a global virtual reach.

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