By Vanessa Gavan
However strong your other leadership attributes, if your judgment is poor, you will never be successful. Your decisions, and their impact, will shape your legacy.
Thanks to the way our brains are wired, even the most talented leader can make a bad decision based on a distorted view. As a psychologist working in the business world, I’m passionate about helping leaders to understand how to be their best, spot the trip-wires and make balanced, whole-brain decisions. Decisions that enable the right execution.
What influences decisions?
There are two kinds of decision-making: emotional and rational. Intuitive decisions are based on feelings and lead to fast action, which is traditionally a hallmark of strength for leaders. Unfortunately, it can over-simplify complex decisions; automatically default to the quickest, least-hard option; and is vulnerable to unconscious bias. By contrast, rational decisions take longer, so the perpetrator can appear ineffective and weak, but the ultimate decision is often more thoughtful, informed and objective.
For decades, rational thinking was regarded as the norm and emotional responses as an aberration. However, Daniel Kahneman, in his seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow, shows that both are valid ways of processing information, with their own positives and negatives. It’s just that feelings lead to a faster reaction. He calls them System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 is intuitive, fast and habitual, while System 2 is thoughtful, slow and analytical. We need both systems to make good decisions, but acknowledging this can be a problem for people who regard themselves as infallible. A CEO with a biased and reactive viewpoint (System 1 thinking) is unlikely to change a decision if challenged. Instead, they will claim it was rational and fact-based (System 2 thinking). Their ego won’t let them believe flawed logic was responsible for a poor decision. It’s easy to see how such confirmation bias can lead to a negative impact on company performance, culture or reputation.
I’m naturally an intuitive style. It has taken me a long time to slow down my instincts to act with a clearer and more resolute intention. Like most people, I occasionally slip back into old habits but have some solid strategies to manage the tension between my System 1 and System 2 thinking.
Decision-making requires willpower, which is a finite resource. Recent research proves that every decision increases our cognitive load and zaps our mental energy. The more decisions a person makes, the more depleted their ability to apply willpower next time they face a choice. This discovery has important implications for leaders, who typically make many decisions a day.
Not only does it mean the quality of decisions declines exponentially, but it can lead to inertia, as leading business psychologist Chip Heath explained at Maximus’s recent Fire Up The Future leadership experience. He theorised that continually exercising self-control to manage tension between rational and emotional thinking requires such effort that even senior leaders become indecisive, which is why organisational change is hard to achieve.
How to make better decisions
Don’t sweat the small stuff – “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing… You need to focus your decision-making energy. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” — Barack Obama, Vanity Fair. Every day, people make small decisions, from whether to exercise to what to eat for lunch. Each one drains mental energy, so conserve it for the right decisions.
Be authentic – University of Minnesota researchers found that when faced with a disengaged audience, it’s more energy-depleting for speakers to focus on projecting a likeable personality than to be themselves. Being authentic takes less effort and makes you a better leader.
Practise conscious thinking – Slow down automatic, reactive thoughts and create room for more disciplined thinking. Become aware of your decision-making process and look for opportunities to be more mindful. A useful concept I use is to let something roll around in my mind for the appropriate time; once I work through the different levels of the issue, widen the thinking and explore alternative options, I generally feel more conviction with the decision.
Be informed – Decision-making can be improved if you understand the psychology behind it. As an executive coach, I test and challenge leaders’ thinking, providing strategies to balance their impulsive, subjective instincts with more data and logic. I recommend books from leading authors such as Kahneman, Roy F. Baumeister, Malcolm Gladwell and Chip & Dan Heath.
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