Decision-making is a big part of a leader’s job. So much rides on what you decide. You want to make the right call, but the choice is not always clear. Decisions can be particularly difficult when issues are complex, money is at stake, people are impacted…and, of course, the clock is ticking.
In my earlier years as a leader, I used to lie awake at night frequently, worrying about big decisions and evaluating every possible option. While it’s important to think things through, letting a decision drag on and weigh you down is not useful.
In recent years, I’ve gained a much better understanding of how the brain works and a greater appreciation for the common pitfalls leaders face when making decisions. I’ve also learned some valuable lessons from my past mistakes. As a result, I have a more robust process for picking an option and moving forward. Still not perfect, but far better.
There are a number of things you can do to strengthen your own decision-making process. Let’s focus on what makes decision-making so challenging, as well as some solutions that can make life easier for you.
- Common decision-making biases to be aware of;
- Decision-making mistakes to avoid; and
- Practical strategies to help you make better decisions.
A good place to start is to consider the impact of decision-making biases on your thinking.
Decision-making biases to be aware of:
Our brains create shortcuts every day to help us think clearly without experiencing information overload. Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” explains how the brain has developed ways of making quick decisions. However, in our desire to reach a timely conclusion, we often make assumptions that can lead to a bad outcome.
Here are a few common biases to be aware of and how you can avoid the pitfalls that come with them.
- Anchoring bias – Relying too heavily on information you receive first. This can lead you to consider any new information in light of this anchoring data, instead of evaluating all relevant information objectively. You see this frequently when considering pricing options. Leading with a higher price tends to make anything lower look like a bargain. One of the ways to avoid this is to go through a weighting exercise to determine the relative importance of each piece of information.
- Availability bias – Placing too much importance on information that readily comes to mind. This can cause you to think that just because you learned about something recently or have a vivid memory of it, the information must be important. You can avoid this bias by taking some time to research a topic and fact-check the details so you will better understand the breadth of an issue.
- Confirmation bias – Valuing information that validates what you already believe. This can cause you to selectively search for and focus primarily on data that reinforces your point of view. You may tend to ignore or not even ask for different perspectives, which can lead to disastrous results. You can avoid this surrounding yourself with others who will challenge your thinking and tell you truth when you need to hear it.
- Overconfidence bias – Overestimating the likelihood of a good outcome due to your knowledge or skills. This can cause you to make mistakes in estimating the amount of time something will take or budgeting the proper resources for a project. This bias relates closely to the optimism bias, which is the belief that bad things are less likely to happen to you than to others. You can avoid either of these tendencies by slowing down long enough to consider all probable outcomes, good and bad, and creating some contingencies for the unexpected.
Decision-making mistakes to avoid
In addition to recognizing potential biases, it can be helpful to consider some common mistakes leaders make when thinking through a decision. Here are a few mistakes I have experienced, along with some suggested strategies for overcoming them.
MISTAKE #1: Emotions clouding your judgment
Difficult decisions often produce all sorts of feelings. You might feel overwhelmed by the potential consequences of your decision, paralyzed by having too much or too little information, or anxious about the uncertainty of the outcome.
Emotions can play an outsized role in decision-making. This can be explained by understanding a few fundamentals of how your brain works.
- The limbic system is the part of your brain that controls emotional regulation.
- When emotions are high, your limbic system is in charge as you are moving away from a perceived threat or toward a perceived reward.
- Emotions tend to drain necessary brain fuel (i.e., water, glucose and sleep) away from the prefrontal cortex, which is the thinking part of the brain.
- As a result, you are more likely to pay attention to what you’re feeling rather than rational thoughts.
So how do you avoid letting your emotions cloud your judgment?
Strategies for tamping down your emotions
Here are a few things that have worked for me.
- See them, but don't get swept away by them. Don’t ignore your emotions when making a decision, but don’t let them overly influence you either. Instead, allow yourself to experience the emotions for a period of time, then put some distance between yourself and your feelings. Remember that emotions are temporary. Better to focus on how you can move your decision forward.
- Reprioritize. Ask yourself this question: "On a scale of 1-10, how big of a deal is this really?" Reprioritizing is a cognitive strategy that allows you to adopt a broader perspective in the heat of the moment. While emotions can be a signal that should be noted when thinking through a decision, you can put them in their proper place by stepping back to see the bigger picture.
- Check in with a trusted colleague. Turn to a friend or advisor who will hold you accountable as you think through a decision. They can help you do a gut check on your emotions and when those feelings might be stifling your common sense.
MISTAKE #2: Jumping to conclusions
As a leader, you tend to move quickly. However, speed can work against you in decision-making by causing you to jump to a conclusion that might not be accurate. It helps to be aware of the reasons you might be tempted to make snap decisions.
- Results-oriented – You feel pressured to reach a goal by a certain deadline. So you assume you must keep up the pace in order to get the results you want. Having a bias for action is useful in leadership, but not at the expense of making sound decisions.
- You want to look good – You feel like you’re supposed to know what to do in any situation. In an effort to impress others, you might be willing to rush a decision simply to appear more decisive.
- Your assumptions seem right – You want to move quickly because you’ve been in a similar situation before and your learnings seem applicable here. This is an example of System 1 thinking, according to Kahneman, when your brain opts for speed by leaning heavily on snap judgments and rules of thumb instead of taking the time for critical thinking.
What can you do to be more intentional as you think through a decision – especially when the situation is complex?
Strategies for more thorough thinking
Consider a few of these suggestions for taking some time to get it right.
- Time to focus – Since logical thinking takes time, your brain won't easily process complexity in the moment. Try blocking your calendar for some dedicated think time when you can consider all the various aspects of a decision and really work through an issue.
- Sleep on it. – Thinking deeply requires plenty of brain fuel. Sleep is one of the most important types of fuel for high cognitive performance, along with water and glucose. When you have a big decision to make, think it through, then get some rest. When you get up the next day, you are more likely to remember any last-minute things you want to consider. You are also more likely to have sorted things through and found the clarity you want to move forward.
- When in doubt, wait. – Sometimes, you simply need to wait. One of my hobbies is motorcycling. There is a critical skill you learn in riding that illustrates the importance of timing in decision-making. It relates to something called “the friction zone,” which works like this. When changing gears on a motorcycle, you must learn how to ease out on the clutch while simultaneously easing on the throttle. This allows your bike to move forward smoothly, without jerking or stalling. This magical space where pause meets power is called “the friction zone.” It’s hard to get it right, and it requires some practice.
The same is true in making decisions. You have to learn when it’s time to go full throttle and when you should pull back and wait for things to develop. Here’s an example: Think of a time when you reached a point in a decision and you thought "Okay, go!" But then something didn’t seem quite right, or you realized you were unclear about a core issue, or your rationale just didn't make sense.
So, against your nature, you wait for more information. And eventually something comes to light. You have an a-ha, you get that missing piece of information, or you hear from that one person who helps you see things in a new way that makes all the difference. When that happens, you’re learning to navigate “the friction zone” of decision-making. The key is to learn to listen when that voice inside you tells you it’s worth waiting, or it’s time to act. You won’t always get it right, but you increase your chances of a better outcome when you recognize the need to consider timing.
Mistake #3: Playing it safe
Fear often holds leaders back from making a tough call. When making a difficult decision, you might be afraid of any number of things: making a sub-optimal choice, looking foolish, failure, breaking a relationship, losing a client, losing your job, the unknown.
As a result, you play it safe in order to reduce the chances of a bad outcome. The problem? You miss out on opportunities to innovate. You risk getting an average result while the competition leaps ahead. You waffle instead of taking action.
How can you make bolder decisions?
Strategies for being more decisive:
- Confidence vs. courage – Don’t wait until you feel confident. Confidence doesn’t come first. Courage does. There are times it’s better to make a decision with courage even if you’re not exactly sure something is going to work out, knowing you can make adjustments as you go. If you wait until you feel confident, you may be sitting still a long time.
- Talk it through – When you articulate what’s in your head, you are more likely to better organize your thoughts and recognize when something doesn’t make sense. You are also more likely to have an insight that helps you make up your mind.
- Stay open to new ideas – Get in the habit of asking more questions and considering alternative solutions. This will help you know when options are truly viable and worth pursuing, even if they’re new. One of the simplest ways to do this is by asking “what if” questions to help you see the possibilities:
- What if we took a test-and-learn approach to trying a new product or service?
- What if we asked the client what they really wanted instead of just assuming we know?
- What if we put a new person on this assignment to see what fresh perspective they could bring?
The world is more complex, and things are constantly changing. But there are a number of things you can do to strengthen your own decision-making process. Be sure to consider the decision-making biases and mistakes you want to avoid and what practical strategies can help you make better decisions.