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It doesn’t matter what we do in life or what our role is in an organisation, we all have to make decisions – each and every day. And these decisions will most likely define us (even if just for that moment or day) – with so called ‘good’ decisions propelling us to greatness and ‘poor’ decisions leading to disappointment, often a feeling of failure and, sometimes these can even topple our careers. 

Think I’m being dramatic? Well just think about an easy decision that we all face each morning – what to wear. If we decide on an outfit that is well pressed, suits our colouring and shape and generally makes us look and feel good we are likely to have a great day. We will most likely feel more confident and hence will tackle greater challenges with gusto, we will be more inclined to engage with people and, research shows, will approach our tasks in a more ‘professional’ manner.

Let’s look at the opposite extreme, where we might be running late and just throw on what’s hanging in the wardrobe. Even though it may be an ‘appropriate’ outfit for the setting, if when we get there, others are wearing some well thought through and polished outfits, we are likely to feel inferior. Our confidence will reduce, we will be less likely to want to ‘present ourselves’ to new people and, research shows, are more like to adopt a more relaxed approach to the tasks we undertake. The above is, perhaps, a trivial example but hopefully it goes to show the impact of good or bad decision making even at this level. And, if we can’t even guarantee against falling into the above trap – and let’s face it most of us have been there are some time or another, how can we guard against making poor decisions around the important things in life. When every decision takes us towards or away from our goals and objectives, how can we make sure these are informed? When our decisions impact on others’ livelihoods, environments and happiness, how can we ensure these are ethically and soundly made and are free from bias?

 

How do we make decisions?

Quite simply there isn’t a straightforward answer, although researchers in the field of Neuroscience are starting to make some headway into discovering how our brains process information. The below brain map from David Straker in his Changing Minds (2008) book does indeed give some insight as to how/where knowledge and experience are processed.

7 How do we make decisions?

Quite simply there isn’t a straightforward answer, although researchers in the field of Neuroscience are starting to make some headway into discovering how our brains process information. The below brain map from David Straker in his Changing Minds (2008) book does indeed give some insight as to how/where knowledge and experience are processed.

The one thing that we do know is that our brain is made up of building blocks called neurons (of which we have over 100 billion each!) and each of these neurons has thousands of pathways that connect to other neurons transferring data and experiences to different areas of the brain for processing. It is now understood that we are only limited to the number of pathways (connections) as we are limited to our experiences and, that the pathways become stronger (more automatic) through repetition. This goes to indicate that by expanding our knowledge and experiences we are able to make more connections and, by repeating processes, our connection between data, or recall, will become easier. So, whilst there isn’t perhaps a template in place to show how decisions are made, we do know that we can improve our decision-making ability through continually increasing our knowledge and new experiences.

 

What can affect our decision making?

A number of factors are cited as being responsible for poor decision making, amongst which are; lack of humility (assuming that someone knows everything); lack of empathy (disregard for anyone else’s feelings or position); lack of self-awareness (if we don’t recognise our own bias, it is impossible to make a ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ decision); lack of time (many decisions need to be made on the spot or at least in a short timescale); stress (which according to Ron Carucci from Navalent and writing for Harvard Business Review, drives us to making more binary choices).

Lack of emotional intelligence pretty much squares off the first three of these elements and we all know people who may lack this in certain areas. The chances are, if you are reading this blog, then you are not one of them. but certainly, if you know someone who is, I highly recommend dropping a copy of one Daniel Goleman’s excellent books on the subject on their desk! The thing is, as Mike Myatt, Chairman of N2Growth stated in his article for Forbes, most senior executives rise to the positions they are in because they possess emotional intelligence and have demonstrated great decision making in the past. How is it then that even with this in place bad decisions are made and some fall from grace as a result? As Myatt states ‘ you are only as good as your last decision’.

It could be argued of course that the higher you rise in an organisation, the less time you have available for reflection and planning and, with more responsibility – the more stress you are like to be under. Indeed. Derek Draper in his book Create Space (2018) advocates the real need for building space into our daily lives to think; connect; do and just be. The examples he provides from his experience as a coach and consultant provide great examples of how not managing and building in time can cause less than productive thoughts and hence choices and decisions. (I thoroughly recommend a read by the way!).

 

So, what can we do to prepare ourselves to make better decisions more regularly?

1. Self-reflection is key: we must understand our biases; how we process information; what our blind spots are. Two of the most productive ways to do this (and both should be undertaken regularly so that it becomes habitual) are to: –

a. Ask those around us. This does not even have to be an awkward conversation. Just pick an area that is important – perhaps you could choose ‘approachability’ and just ask a few different stakeholder roles to rate how approachable they feel you are when busy on a scale of 1-10 and then ask what you need to do to make it a 10. By asking in this way, they are more likely to give an honest and constructive reply and by asking 4-5 people you may be able to draw out a theme from the replies that you can work on.

b. Take time to reflect on any difficult meetings you may have; decisions you may have to make. Did you get the outcome you hoped for? What could you have done differently to have affected a more favourable outcome? Also reflect on the positive – what did you do that worked beyond your wildest dreams and could you use this tactic in other situations.

2. Meditation or Mindfulness: are cited with helping with decision making. According to Mindful.org, research from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute found that people who meditate regularly react rationally rather than emotionally when faced with difficult decisions. Furthermore, the NHS backs research that suggests that meditating for just 20 minutes per day can lower the stress hormone cortisol, a factor that is attributed to poor decision making. Indeed research from Andrew Hafenbrack, which was published in the Journal of Business Research, volume 75, June 2017, suggests that just one focussed breathing, or mindfulness session, can have an impact on the decisions people make – giving them a better perspective on the here and now.

3. Maintain a focus on Personal and Professional Development: This can be through cognitive; physical and spiritual practices – and in fact some of the most creative solutions to problems can be found through taking ideas from completely separate interests and applying them in different contexts. The important thing is though, to continually increase your knowledge base.

4. Be open to being humble: Often when we are expected to make a decision, it can be taken or inferred that we are expected to know the answers. In some situations that may indeed be the case but, where a decision is critical, regardless of our own knowledge or previous experience it is important to recognise that we only know what we know and hence we don’ t know what we don’t know. It is vitally important therefore that we seek external knowledge to add to what we already know and support our rationale. This can be done by: –

a. Asking 2 or 3 select individuals for their assessment of the situation. These individuals should be relevant in terms their position and knowledge and hence be credible and impartial to the outcome of any decision.

b. Seek any data that may provide hard statistics to support any decision

c. Seek any examples of similar situations where you can analyse similarities and differences to your own situation

5. Perform a situational analysis: Consider: –

a. Who will your decision affect? How might they react?

b. What are the consequences good/bad of your potential decision?

c. Do you have a back-up plan?

d. Is your decision ethical? Can you live with the outcome? What would your family and friends think of your decision?

e. What does your ‘gut’ tell you? There is science to suggest that our bodies act uneasily when something is not quite right. Although I hasten to add – this should be your final ‘check’ and not your starting point for decision making

 6. Don’t succumb to ‘analysis paralysis’ – whilst it is important to undertake as thorough as possible an investigation into the best course of action, don’t allow this to delay or worst still avoid making a decision at all. The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to share a deadline with those you consult with and share information with.

7. Most importantly don’t feel that you have to make an on the spot assessment. At the very least ask to be given the time to consider the options. Most often than not, the route you choose will be more respected by those you are leading.

 

I am very aware that there will be some reading this article who may be disappointed that there isn’t a definitive list of easy to follow, fool proof actions that will lead to perfect decisions every time. The thing is, we are all human and hence are all fallible. But I do promise that if you follow the above, your decision making will be more sound.

 

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