Decisions, decisions!

One of the most pervasive yet crucial tasks leaders must perform each day is to make decisions.

Whether deciding how to respond to external market forces or what to do about a member of your team who is struggling in their role, our decision making skills are utilised every day, and often more than we think.

Making decisions, particularly those which have the potential to make a big impact, can be tough.  And risky.  Our brain is a highly evolved tool that can both help us and sabotage us in decision making.

So its little wonder when people ask me for what I wish for in life, the wisdom of hindsight comes to the forefront of my mind.

Decision making - The Leader's Digest

Decisions are an integral and ongoing part of leadership – knowing which path to take can be challenging.

The global business stage is becoming increasingly smaller, so the ability to make sound decisions is even more crucial.

Research has shown that we use “unconscious routines to cope with the complexity inherent in most decisions”.*

Here are 4 traps to be aware of when making decisions and some alternative approaches:

1.      Not clearly defining all the alternatives.  As humans,  we have a tendency to be binary in our decision making processes. More often than not, our approach is “either/or” not “x, y or z”. Third and fourth alternatives can often provide a more creative and effective solution.

Remedy: Challenge yourself to think of as many solutions as you can to the problem before deciding on what to move ahead on.  Ask yourself, “If I had to come up with at least five possible alternative approaches to this, what would they be?”

2.      The right information is not collected. Anchoring* is a phenomenon in which the mind gives “disproportionate amount of weighting to the first information it receives.”  Initial impressions, estimates or opinions we hear anchor subsequent thoughts and judgements.

Remedy: Challenge yourself to play Devil’s Advocate to your first impression. Delay talking to others (particularly those whose opinions you give more weight to) until you have firmed at least some initial thoughts and opinions.  Ask yourself, what other information would be helpful for me to know before I make the final decision?

3.      Confirming our own bias. How often have you almost made up your mind and then sought out information to support your thinking?  This trap prevents us from avoiding seeking out information that may contradict our favoured approach. Hammond, Keeney and Raiffa tell us that this is due to our bias for wanting to do things we like rather than things we don’t (ya think?), even when it does not serve us.

Remedy: Find someone to challenge you.  One of my favourite coaching questions around decision making is, “if you were going to challenge (or shoot holes) in this approach or decision, what would you say?”. Ensure you ask others’ non leading, open questions when it comes to testing your preferred approach.  “What do you think the biggest challenges are in this situation?” will glean more meaningful answers than “do you think the biggest challenges are X, Y and Z?”

4.      Being unaware of our own decision making approaches.  I have a tendency to favour ‘gut feeling’ or ‘intuition’.  Others I coach are very analytical and factual/left brain in their decision making biases. Neither bias is necessarily good or bad..  Not knowing what yours are can be problematic.

Remedy:  Know thyself.  Spend some time understanding your own decision making patterns and approaches.  Ask trusted other colleagues, bosses and direct reports what they have observed about the way you make decisions.  Then be aware of when your tendency is out on force.

HBR’S 10m Must Reads series is a valuable resource, and if you want to learn more, read ‘On Making Decisions.’

Here is a link to an interesting TED talk on how our brains can get in the way of good decision making/perception.

*Reference: John Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney, and Howard Raiffa The Hidden Traps of Decision Making.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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