Are You Being Stalked by Decision Regret?

Lynne Franklin, principal of Lynne Franklin Wordsmith and Dave Bruno, principal and founder of the Small Business Owner’s Manual co-authored this section.

What you’ll learn:
● The similarities and differences between buyer’s remorse and decision regret.
● How decision regret gets in the way of planning and goal setting.
● The three actions you can take to power through this.

You know how it goes. You’re driving, walking, reading, or doing any one of a million everyday things. All of a sudden—seemingly out of nowhere—wham!

It’s like you’ve been slammed hard, deep in your gut. You’re struck by wrenching fear and foreboding that this year’s business goals and plans just aren’t realistic.

You ask, “What on earth were we thinking?

“We can’t possibly achieve what’s in our plan!

“We’d better ratchet back our vision for the business over the next 12 months.”

What just happened? You experienced “decision regret.” When this hits full force, it’s a frightening, momentum-stopping, energy-sapping feeling. Left unexamined, it causes your carefully crafted plans for this year to be abandoned for “another, better time.”


Before you jump off the figurative ledge, read on.

Decision Regret and Buyer’s Remorse

You’re probably familiar with Buyer’s Remorse. This is the deep fear of having made a dreadful and irreversible mistake. It’s usually prompted by a recent purchase, usually of a relatively large size and impact. That includes buying a house, a car, or making a sizable investment in something.

The uncertainty, doubt or fear often centers on these areas: the ability to pay, whether it was a wise decision, what others might think about it, or if we were bamboozled by a fast-talking salesperson.

Many of these anxieties and doubts are also present in decision regret. However, Decision Regret is about the choice to move forward with a direction, action, strategy, initiative or plan that is (or perceived to be) far-reaching in its organizational ramifications. Most importantly, it’s the fear of personal and/or organizational harm if the new direction or initiative isn’t successful.

Both happen in business. But decision regret—and its kneejerk reaction to pull back for fear that something won’t or can’t work—is the most potentially destructive and derailing. And many times it hits even before you start the plan or initiative and can begin to assess its effectiveness and progress.

Causes of Decision Regret

Here’s the crux. Studies show that people imagine greater regret for the things they do than if they do nothing.

We’re much more forgiving if an opportunity passes us by than when we take a chance and fail. In the first case, we can abdicate some of our responsibility: “I wish I’d known …” By acting, we take ownership of a situation. This means we’re in charge of influencing what happens—and it’s painful when the results don’t meet our expectations.

By creating business plans and goals, you’re preparing for action. This already is triggering the risk-averse parts of your brain designed to keep you safe—which is what gave you that earlier gut clench.

Regret is a psychological reaction to making a wrong decision.

Here, “wrong” is based on actual outcomes—rather than the information we had when making the decision, or how we made the choice.

When results fall short, often we punish ourselves twice. First, we didn’t achieve what we set out to do—and diverted valuable time and resources. Second, we made a “bad” choice—even if the outcome was affected by forces beyond our control. We’re so busy beating ourselves up that we miss the chance to learn from what happened.

No wonder we’d rather not set goals!

How to Minimize Decision Regret

Use these three tools to combat your fear and inertia.

First, give up the idea that you can avoid decision regret. Perhaps the best advice comes from basketball’s Michael Jordan:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Instead, focus on minimizing the impact. Start by answering, “What about my plans/goals causes me the most fear?” Then you can identify your concerns and see if these are real or imagined. This also prevents you from throwing out everything when a tweak will do.

Second, set SMART goals:

S = Specific

Know what you intend to achieve and by when. “We reach $3 million in revenue this year” is clearer and more motivating than “We make more money.” Would you really be satisfied with $5,000 more?

M = Measurable

Make it easy to see when you’ve met the goal. In this case, it’s $3 million for the year.

A = Attainable

Setting a goal too high actually demotivates you. If you made $2 million last year and have no new products/services to offer or markets to tap, then $5 million would likely be out of your reach. Then the lack of progress depresses everyone, likely creating a “why even try?” ethos.

R = Relevant

Be sure the goal is one that will actually move the needle for your business. Revenue goals usually qualify for this. Don’t bother with unimportant areas just to get a “win,” because these dilute your focus.

T = Timely

Set a deadline. This creates a sense of responsibility and urgency. Don’t use Snow White goals: “Someday my prince will come …”

Third, get out of your head. When planning and setting goals, people rely primarily on their own experience and extrapolate from there. This creates “planning fallacy”: relying too much on the best-case scenario. Discovering we’ve been overly optimistic about our odds of success can lead to that moment of paralyzing fear when we face an unexpected obstacle.

Instead, do your research before setting your goals. Look at what your competitors are doing: what has worked well or not for them with similar products, services and markets. See if there are any statistical databases you can tap: particularly on market growth and pricing.

Do informational interviews with current and potential customers about what they see, making it clear you’re not “selling” anything. Consider creating an advisory board to tap the brainpower of smart people outside of your company. [Read the SBOM section Revealing The Best Secret of American Small Business on how to do this.]

Put On a Happy Face

You can’t be a successful small business owner without being optimistic. However, fearing your goals now feel unrealistic can put you in the crosshairs of decision regret before you even start working on them.

Too many small business leaders are so afraid of this that they stop making plans.

Instead, accept that you will experience decision regret. Power past it by uncovering what’s frightening you, setting goals that motivate you, and gathering information from outside your business to give your plans—and you—a solid foundation.

Key Points

  • Buyer’s remorse is the fear of making a dreadful and irreversible mistake.
  • Decision regret is the fear that you’ll be unsuccessful in reaching your stretch goals, and this will harm your business and you.
  • It’s caused by your brain wanting to keep you “safe” and the mistaken belief that doing nothing is more acceptable than trying and failing.
  • Decision regret can’t be avoided, but it can be less debilitating. Ask what you’re afraid of, use SMART goals, and get information from outside your company to reduce its impact.