This article was based on episode 124 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the episode guide when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Purchase individual full episode guides at themodernmanager.com/shop.
How many decisions do you make each day? It might not seem possible, but some researchers have found that each person makes upwards of 30,000 decisions every day. While the vast majority are micro decisions that we barely even notice, some are significant, with notable consequences or implications.
While it might not matter if you spread peanut butter on one or both sides of your sandwich bread, it matters quite a bit which candidate you decide to hire or which project you decide to invest in. In these cases, decision quality, not only speed, is important.
HUMANS ARE NOTORIOUS FOR MAKING BAD DECISIONS
For as hard as we try to make good decisions, there are many factors that can get in the way. To make better decisions, you must recognize when you may be influenced in ways that inhibit sound judgement.
Just like willpower that wanes toward the end a long day, our brain tires of making decisions all day long. Each decision we make wears on us, just a tiny bit. It’s why we’re more likely to grab the ice cream at night than at 10am. Decision fatigue at work plays similarly. The more decisions we've made, the less patience and attention we have for additional decisions. This means we often don’t consider as many options or don’t explore the options as thoroughly. We may end up avoiding the decision all together or, equally as bad, picking the first or easiest choice just to be done with it.
Mood + Emotions
You may have noticed how mood impacts many aspects of our lives. When we’re feeling good, we tend to treat others more generously and think more optimistically. When we’re upset, we tend to be less forgiving or tolerant and think more pessimistically. Similar to mood, feeling tired or hungry can lead to a lapse in judgement, as does emotion in general. When we feel personally attached to a decision, we may do mental gymnastics in order to align the decision with our personal passion.
There are dozens of cognitive biases, or shortcuts, that our brains use to help us make sense of the world. When making decisions, these cognitive biases can get in the way. For example, Confirmation Bias occurs when we elevate information that confirms what we already believe and downplay or ignore contradictory information.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but when making decisions, more information is not necessarily better. When we experience information overload, we don’t know how to process it all. It becomes challenging to know what information is valid or important. This can lead to misuse of information such as a rejection or misinterpretation of the information or a hyper-focusing regardless of whether or not it’s the most relevant data.
The Paradox of Choice
Similar to information overload, our brain does worse with more options rather than fewer. The more options available for consideration, the more likely we’ll get it wrong. This often leads us to opt out of making any choice in order to avoid making a bad one.
APPROACHES THAT SUPPORT GOOD DECISIONS
To counteract these unhelpful tendencies, use the following approaches when making individual or team decisions.
First Decide if the Decision Is Framed Correctly
Sometimes we spend unnecessary amounts of time and energy trying to make a decision, but if we took a step back, we’d realize we’re asking the wrong question to begin with. Before making a big decision, ask if this is the right decision to be making. For example, if you’re deciding between three new marketing initiatives, ask, “is now the time to be trying something new?” before going down any path.
Alternatively, ask yourself, “Is there a right answer here?” Sometimes, the options are equally good or there is no way to predict which will be best. In these cases, it’s better to simply make a choice and learn as you go. This way, instead of agonizing over the decision, you can use your time and energy on more important things.
Make Important Decisions Earlier in the Day
We have more energy for critical thinking when we are well rested. Therefore, it’s better to make big decisions earlier in the day and week before our brains are depleted. For example, if you know you have a decision-making meeting coming up, schedule it on a Tuesday morning instead of 4pm on a Thursday.
Check Your Emotional State
Before making any decision, it’s helpful to reflect on how your emotions may be influencing you. Are you in a particularly stressful time at work? Is today your first day back after vacation? Is it raining outside? If you notice your mental state may be impacted, consider pressing pause and revisiting the decision the next day. Or consider asking someone else to make the decision because you can’t make it clearly.
Include Others in the Decision-Making Process
Research consistently demonstrates that diverse groups with varied perspectives make better decisions than individuals, even individual experts. Getting the perspective of others, especially people who disagree with you or approach the decision from a different angle, helps counteract cognitive biases or assumptions while filling in gaps of information.
Focus on Situational Awareness
When it comes to gathering information, the goal is situational awareness. The concept comes from fighter jet pilots who need to be aware of their current environment and be able to focus on the most important factors at that moment. In business, you don’t need all the information, just the right information.
GOOD PROCESS LEADS TO BETTER DECISIONS
At times, using a process to help you explore a decision or the available options can help bring clarity to an otherwise messy conversation or thought process.
In the book Six Thinking Hats author Edward de Bono outlines how to approach a decision from six different perspectives. Each of these is referred to by a colored hat, which you can ‘put on’ while thinking through that lens.The six perspectives are:
White: What facts or data are relevant to this decisions?
Red: How do you feel about the decision and how will it impact others?
Black: What are the risks, potential downsides, or other concerns?
Yellow: What positives outcomes or benefits might occur?
Green: What might be possible when we think creatively?
Blue: How are we managing our process to make this decision?
When considering options, de Bono suggests thinking in an orderly fashion from each of these perspectives.
To help you compare options, try converting each into a numerical score that captures it’s fit with your criteria. By deciding the specific criteria for the decision, the relative weighting of each of those criteria, and each option’s rating for each criteria, you’re able to generate a score that allows you to more clearly see how each option ranks. This can also help teams pinpoint where there is lack of alignment, allowing you to focus the discussion on those specific issues.
Whether you’re making decisions as an individual or team, you have the ability to improve your decision quality. All it takes is a thoughtful process and a bit of mindfulness.
This article was based on episode 124 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.