When you don’t like the choices

November 6, 2016

By Jeff Plakans:

I just returned to my office from performing my civic privilege, in this case voting for our next POTUS and levying my opinion on the critical ballot questions offered up by the populace of Massachusetts.  Voting this year didn’t give me the normal feeling of exhilaration in flexing the muscles that are my inalienable rights, as I had in the past.

In preparing to vote, I was faced with an uncomfortable and new reality – how to make a decision when none of the choices seem at all palatable.

Before you discount this as a political rant, have no fear, as this is neither the arena nor an appropriate time to levy one side right or wrong, credible vs dishonest, or sincere vs transparent. Read on with safety here as we tackle here a very fundamental but important question:


How does one establish the criteria to measure which is the least of the worst options to make a decision?


Google is rich in resources to guide one on decision-making, such as Michael Davis’ Seven Steps for Ethical Decision-making, How to test your decision-making instincts published by McKinsey & Co., and Harvard Business School’s write up on A Brief History of Decision-Making.

Few, however, provide guidance on my specific question:   How to pick the proverbial “lesser of two evils”, in order to make the best possible decision.

In my example I am applying this question to politics, and within any candidate selection process, I normally ask myself the following questions:

  • Does the candidate share the same values as me and my family?
  • Can the candidate be trusted to do what he/she promises, or will the ‘truth change’ with new opportunities or circumstances?
  • Is the candidate’s platform aligned with the best interest of my family, my vocation, and my way of life?
  • Can I identify with the candidate and/or can the candidate identify with me?
  • Do I feel ‘represented’ – or do I feel have a voice in the candidate?

However, in the case of election 2016, I had to alter my questions.  I already knew that by and large, the answers to these questions were ‘No’ and that meant my decision-making process was flawed – or at best, not applicable to this situation.  The revised criteria were the following:

  • Which of the candidates do I feel won’t counter or contradict the values of myself and my family?
  • Which candidate do I feel has the lesser potential for irrational behavior or incompetence?
  • Of the candidates, which follows the same set of rules that I do? (in other words, which of the candidates feel the rules don’t apply to them)
  • Will the platform of the candidate address my priorities or things that are important to my family, vocation or way of life?
  • Which candidate will ‘do for now’ until the next election, until I am actually inspired by a candidate?

If you examine the two sets of questions, it is mortifying to see how dramatically they evolve with the absence of palatable choices. This got me to thinking, if there were more realistic choices, would the first or second set of questions apply?


How does our decision-making process change, based on how much ‘freedom’ our options give us?


At this point, we could get into the feasibility or continued relevance of what is called the ‘two party system’, and how it might not necessarily be giving us the choices that we as citizens are looking for in our leadership.  But we will not.

What made this a really compelling question, now that I was really thinking about it, what how similar decisions were made by our clients here at Commonwealth, or by those who over the years decided that Commonwealth wasn’t the right choice for their company.

Years ago, Commonwealth primarily offered traditional ‘payroll services’ and competed with national payroll companies.  In those days, I can remember talking to more than one prospective client who said to me: “All payroll companies are basically the same.  You are really good week to week, until something changes, or there is a unique situation.  Then there is trouble….”.  

This was the representation of the same sentiment I felt when I was voting this week – that I was underwhelmed by my choices and thought everyone was basically the same.  So in this case, the prospective client was applying the second set of questions to their decision-making process, trying to pick the best of the worse.

In this case, the challenge was that the prospective client had ‘assumed’ that we were all the same, but it was my job (or our Presidential candidate’s job) to demonstrate that there was a reason to use the first set of questions in the decision-making process.  In other words, we needed to differentiate ourselves in order to do that.

Frankly, at the time it was somewhat difficult to do because the actual tasks that we performed for our clients were exactly the same as our national competition, but how we performed them was different.  It was our attention to detail, which was congruent and a by-product of our attention to the person that made this possible.  But hearing that from one of us was far less compelling than hearing from one of our clients.

So, it was not surprising that when we approached a prospective client who had never heard of us, we were considered using the second set of questions, but when we were referred by a client, it was always the first set of questions.

These days it’s a little different, in that our HCM technology sets us apart and puts us in a completely different class than most of our peers.  But, we haven’t lost that attention to the person, and to no surprise, the same principle applies as to how we are considered by our prospects.

So to answer the question of decision-making, and how that process changes based on our options, it is really quite simple.  If we can demonstrate that we are aligned with our client’s interests, and the client can identify with what we are doing (and how we would do it for them), then the first set of questions will always be applied to us.  This allows any prospective client to feel that they have the freedom of ‘palatable’ choice, and avoids them having to pick the ‘best of the worst’.

I know we do this each time we talk to a prospect.  Why don’t our candidates realize the importance of this as well?

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