You’ve prepared all year for this big pitch, this moment on stage where $1.8 million is up for grabs for you or your biggest competitors.

You’re ready, and it’s going well. Just as you get ready to bring it down the home stretch, an idea occurs to you. A different way to approach this particular point.

You feel pretty good, so you go for it.

Bad decision. Your team cringes as they watch you go down in flames.

They help you dig out of this error in judgment, wishing you had at least consulted them so they could say, “Don’t do it! Stick to the plan!” But it’s too late and the damage is done.

Hopefully, that never happens to you, but that’s what happened to top golfer Jordan Spieth when he went to work at the Masters Tournament at Augusta National on Sunday, April 10th. A single lapse – a spur of the moment decision to deviate from the plan – on the 12th hole in the fourth and last round of the tournament cost him the win.

It could happen to anyone

When the stakes are high, and even when they’re not, it’s often those seemingly insignificant choices we make that let us down. These are situations that in hindsight appear to be a mental lapse, a “thinko” (the thought version of a typo), carelessness, or lack of attention to detail. And just as with Jordan Spieth, it often comes down to messing with the plan at the last minute.

I was in my second year on the job and put in charge of a “roadshow” for a Fortune 10 company, which meant bringing the CFO and his team around Europe for presentations with their key investors. A very high profile and important set of events.

When we got to Zurich, the people running the conference facilities proudly told us they had arranged for the latest technology for the slideshow (this was before Powerpoint – can you imagine?!), which involved two projectors showing alternative slides so that there was a seamless transition from one slide to the next.

We studiously arranged all the slides into two carousels with all the odd numbered slides in one carousel and the even numbered slides in the second carousel.

Then, at the last minute, somebody had the bright idea that it would be good to start the slideshow with the company logo. We acted on it.

When the CFO got up to speak, the logo came up and looked great. Then he clicked for the next slide and disaster struck.

We had put the logo slide into the first carousel and adjusted all the subsequent slides without doing the same to the slides in the second carousel. The CFO ended up doing the talk without slides at all since they were bewilderingly out of order from his perspective, and none of us could communicate with the tech support people who spoke Swiss German.

I apologized profusely for my role in the situation, but I’m sure that the treasurer took the brunt of the criticism and had a pretty deep hole to climb back out of career-wise.

Other ways our choices can let us down

There are plenty of other ways for small split-second decisions to let you down. For example, I’ve personally observed and unfortunately participated in these situations as well:

  • Being in a big meeting that’s going well and you decide to embellish on your usual story a bit and then get caught out.
  • Not being able to resist nailing your arch rival with a zinger that backfires.
  • Jabbering on in panic mode when things are going badly rather than choosing to calmly regroup and return to safer ground.
  • Losing that big opportunity because of a new off-color joke you spontaneously inserted into your usual spiel.
  • Saying one sentence too many and making the other person feel like they got a raw deal.

And then there’s my “favorite” bad decision, which is trying to fit in just one more thing before I leave for that big meeting or call, and then being late.

It’s often the “small stuff” we don’t “sweat” that gets us

One reason why these seemingly small decisions can have such outsized negative impact is because we’ve usually planned ahead for the big stuff but not “sweated” the small stuff.

Another is that there’s so much small stuff to remember. But some of that small stuff is important, even though it can seem like a distraction in big situations that require you to stay present and “in the moment”.

And in Spieth’s case, he was probably suffering from decision fatigue as well, having made more great decisions than anyone else for three and a half rounds of golf under serious pressure.

Situations that heighten the risk

Ironically, it’s when everything is going smoothly that you can be at greater risk. In my experience, that’s often a danger point, and I’m not even a pessimist!

But it’s when things are going well that it’s easy to let down your guard. Perhaps you feel you’ve laid a strong foundation and it’s time to improvise. Or maybe you feel brave and decide to challenge yourself to go for the “extra credit” points. Or maybe you’re busy patting yourself on the back (from personal experience, this is always dangerous!).

Instead, that’s just the time to stick to the plan.

The other danger point is when things are going badly. There’s the tendency to want to panic or try desperate measures when taking a calm moment to think is in order.

And to Spieth’s credit, he did recover and made good decisions and executed well after the 12th hole.

In fact, Spieth has the reputation of being one of the mentally strongest golfers, as evidenced by the fact that he is the only player ever to stay in the lead over 7 consecutive rounds of The Masters golf tournament. If he can make such a mistake, the rest of us can and will.

Recovering from your bad decision

So, when you inevitably make a bad decision, how best to deal with it? Let’s take a look at Spieth’s example.

  • Ask for help. In Spieth’s case, he turned to his caddy and together they regrouped. This is where it’s helpful to have a strong team around you, whether you build that team or join it. Enlist their help to bounce back on the spot. If you’re in that meeting and just made a big gaffe, a supportive colleague can step in and give you time to recover. And that’s another reason to be on good terms with your coworkers.
  • Take ownership. Spieth knew the mistake he had made, and acknowledged it publicly. There’s something powerful and trust-building about a person who admits to their mistakes and apologizes when it’s appropriate. And whatever you do, don’t blame others. It’s not only hard to pull off, it can be a huge trust-breaker. As the saying goes, “A bad workman blames his tools.”
  • Show character. Beyond simply acknowledging his mistake, Jordan Spieth handled it in a way that shows his character and maturity. As the tournament’s previous winner, it was the tradition for him to put the famous green jacket on the winner. He not only did that, he said gracious words of congratulations and faced the reporters just moments after stepping off the course. By doing so, he turned a negative moment into a positive opportunity.

Saving yourself from yourself

The best situation is to keep these small decisions from sabotaging your success in the first place. Here are five ways to keep these small decisions from letting you down in a big way:

  1. Be conscious. The key to keeping away from shooting yourself in the foot – or scoring an “own goal” in the language of soccer – is to recognize when it’s about to happen. Only then can you find a way to address it in real time.
  1. Step back and ask “why?” When you recognize that you’re in that situation, it’s a great time to ask yourself how it would (or wouldn’t) serve your bigger purpose to make a change to the plan. This is the equivalent of inserting a “stop and think” sign between having that clever thought and acting on it.
  1. Confer with others. If you’re still thinking about making the change, then discuss it with one or two people you trust before you take action.
  1. Pre-decide. To avoid the situation all together, it helps to decide on your strategy and just how you want to play it before you get on the “hot seat”.
  1. Routinize. An extreme version of “pre-deciding” is to take those decisions that come up every day and set them into a routine. For example, what you eat for breakfast, what you’re going to wear, when to check your email, and so forth. That way, you can preserve your decision-making ability for when you truly need it.

Be conscious about your spontaneity

When it comes to important situations, the time to decide to “not play it safe” and to take risk is when you’re planning. That applies whether we’re talking about sports, business, or life in general.

So when the stakes are high and you want to avoid those small decisions taking you down the wrong path, make a great plan. Then, once you’ve entered the arena, stick to the plan and adjust it only when necessary.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for spontaneity and improvisation. Just be aware of when you want to give yourself that leeway, and make that a conscious decision too.

In the end, simply recognizing when you’re about to make a decision that messes with the plan can save you from much grief, which in turn makes for smoother sailing in your personal and professional life.

What decision-making situations do you need to watch out for so that you don’t let yourself down?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

Want to learn more about decision-making and how you can get it right? Check out Chapter 5 of my book ACCELERATE: 9 Capabilities to Achieve Success at Any Career Stage, available on Amazon.