For some people, making decisions isn’t easy. Decision anxiety is on the rise, in part because it’s very difficult to grasp all of the ever-changing dynamics of situations. When the stakes are high, it is tempting to delay decision-making by continuing to gather extraneous data, hoping that a foolproof answer will emerge. Some leaders defer tough decisions to a committee, hoping that a group of people can create a miracle. Knowing that no decision-making is guaranteed to produce the results you want, how do you avoid either a knee-jerk reaction or decision paralysis?
Know your biases. Research done for the U.S. military at the Georgia Tech Research Institute showed that people develop unconscious strategies that help them simplify decision-making. These strategies or biases allow people who must process lots of information to draw quick conclusions. This study, aimed to improve decision-making under fire, found many different kinds of biases. Some of the most applicable to non-military leadership decisions are:
- Absence of evidence. Not considering missing information that is relevant to the decision.
- Oversensitivity to consistency. Giving more weight to multiple reports of information, even if it comes from one source.
- Randomness. Perceiving a causal relationship between two or more events, even if they aren’t related.
- Vividness. Giving greater weight to information received directly, rather than secondhand, even if the secondhand information is more valid and relevant.
People use these unconscious biases to categorize, weigh and interpret vast amounts of data quickly. They weed out certain kinds of information and draw quick conclusions about others – some of which can lead to errors in judgment. How do leaders make decisions “under fire” without succumbing to these ineffective shortcuts?
Ask, “what information is missing?” Enter every decision assuming that you don’t know everything yet. Then make a concerted effort to uncover any missing data that impacts the situation. This may mean re-examining the old parameters and assumptions that underpin your decision, given the dynamic business climate.
Seek out new sources and new types of information. Remember that even if a person gives you the same message repeatedly, that does not make it true. Seek out different perspectives and emerging knowledge to inform your decision. If you always ask the same customers for their feedback, for example, try another approach. Seek out clients who were dissatisfied or a brand-new customer to gauge first impressions. Resist the urge to chart your course based on a single source, no matter how persuasive the argument presented.
Find real root causes. Be rigorous in defining the causes of the problem you are addressing. It is easy for our brains to jump to conclusions based on the timing of events and other superficial evidence. Carefully scrutinize the assumptions you’re making about causal relationships. Also, make sure that the decision you make addresses the root cause – not just the symptoms – or you will be back trying to solve that problem all over again in the near future.
Weigh information impartially. Information you receive directly, especially when it’s persuasively verbalized, can be compelling. Combat the urge to give that first-hand account more credence by identifying trusted people who can fact-check and/or plays devil’s advocate. Remember that what may be appealing about one particular message may relate more to your emotional reaction than to its validity.
If you follow these best practices, will you have 100% confidence in all of your decisions? Sadly, no. You must accept that there is a gray area of unknowns and make your best educated and informed decision. If you find you’re going the wrong way, don’t hesitate to pull the plug or adapt your strategy in order to meet your goals. As Paul Sullivan writes in his article titled Being Clutch, Or How Not To Choke Under Pressure, don’t fall in love with your plan (or in this case, your decision). What you can love is the process of making decisions the right way.
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