Bad Decisions: Or, Why We Screw Up

Research has shown that every day, we make 2000 decisions, i.e. choices, by another name. Most of our decisions are minor and we make them quickly, almost without thinking. We decide what to wear to work in the morning, we choose whether to eat lunch now or in 30 minutes.

But a select few of our decisions have serious consequences and for that reason they demand serious thought, if not actual research. The choices we make affect our health, safety, finances, relationships, our time and our reputation. Ultimately, our decisions define our lives. Consistently making good decisions can be considered among the best things we can do for ourselves, in both our personal and professional lives. 

Now when we make a decision, we do not always have all of the information that we’d like to have. Sometimes, what one could reasonably expect to be a sound decision turns out to be less than positive because of factors that were unknown when the decision was made.

According to Michael Erwin, CEO of the not-for-profit organization The Character & Leadership Center, U.S. Army Reserves Lt. Colonel, Asst. Professor in Leadership and Psychology at the U.S. Military Academy /West Point and author of Lead Yourself First (2006), those faced with an important decision should be mindful of the following conditions, which are capable of undermining good decision-making:

Decision fatigue

With so many decisions to make, especially those that will have a big impact on our own lives or the lives of others, it’s almost inevitable to avoid decision fatigue. To counter it, identify the most important decisions you need to make and arrange to make them when your energy levels are highest.

Social Psychologist Roy Bauminster studied mental discipline at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH and at Florida State University in Tallahassee.  His work indicates that it’s best to make important decisions in the morning after eating a light, nutritious breakfast. Our brains derive energy from healthy food and that helps us to comprehend and value long-term prospects and bolsters decision-making ability.  In the morning we have enough willpower to exercise the self-control needed for making important strategic or financial decisions.

Bauminster advises that we tackle big decisions first, before we have to make numerous smaller decisions that will sap energy and lead to decision fatigue.  So do your best to schedule client meetings for early in the day, before late afternoon, whenever possible. Write and pitch proposals early in the day as well.

According to the researcher Martin Hilbert, Professor of Communication at the University of California at Davis and instructor of the seminar Information and Communication Technology: A Venture into Applied Data Science, our brains process about five times the amount of information today as we processed in 1986. Consequently, many of us live in a continuous state of distraction and we struggle to focus. Ongoing distractions are detrimental to sleep, productivity, concentration and, yes, decision-making.

To counter this, schedule time each day to go offline and step away from email, social media, news and the onslaught of the Information Age. It’s easier said than done, but do-able if you make it a priority.

Insufficient information

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, IL found that in a typical meeting, an average of three people do 70% of the talking. As author Susan Cain describes in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts (2012), many introverts are reluctant to speak up in meetings until they know precisely what they want to say. Unfortunately, introverts fairly often feel blocked by overly expressive extroverts and they keep their insights to themselves. As a result, decision-makers might ignore or gloss over certain possible answers or options, perhaps due to the bias of habit (“we’ve never done that before”).

Meeting conveners can temper this inclination by sending out a meeting agenda 24 hours in advance, to give everyone time to think about their questions and suggestions regarding the agenda items. Furthermore, it is incumbent upon the convener to create an environment that encourages all attendees (whether they participate physically or virtually) to contribute— i.e., speak up and share information and when necessary, persuade others to examine and question their assumptions.

Introverts often ask the right questions, or contribute great ideas and relevant information to their teams, because while the extroverts are busy talking over one another and doing whatever possible to monopolize the conversation, introverts are quietly listening and thinking, questioning and analyzing. Decision-makers can greatly benefit from input supplied by the quiet members of their team.

Multi-tasking

There are few jobs left in the world today that don’t require at least some multi-tasking. While that’s the reality, research pioneered in 2009 by Earl Miller, Professor of Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed that performance, including productivity and effective decision-making, can be diminished by as much as 40% when we attempt to focus on two (or more) cognitive tasks simultaneously. When called to make an important decision, set aside a block of time so that you can devote the required thought and focus to the question (or task).

Analysis Paralysis

The Information Age has deluged us with an abundance of information—Big Data, algorithms and a vast array of metrics— and there’s almost no end to the amount of information one can access. However, more information doesn’t necessarily lead to the best result.

Information overload can hinder the decision-making process; the more information there is to consider, the longer it takes to make the decision. Which data thread should we follow? Analysis-Paralysis, which is an expression of confusion and fear, can set in.

Because time is often a factor in big decisions, knowing when to draw the line on data gathering and move forward to finalizing your decision is a valuable leadership skill. While the decision-making process should be thorough, the best way to make good decisions is not to continually search for more information but instead to understand what information will be useful, review the selected data, set a decision-making deadline and adhere to it.

Emotions

Strong emotions have the power to impair one’s ability to make sound decisions and it is advisable to delay important decisions when one is angry, frustrated, excited, or even very happy. May I also include fatigue, inebriation, illness, pain and hunger in this category?

During those times, one’s ability to reason and take a measured and balanced view of an important question or unfolding events usually disappears. When blood sugar drops, a trip to the grocery store often results in a shopping basket filled with the wrong foods. Sending an email when angry or frustrated can present a danger to one’s career or business, since the temptation to use provocative or even harsh language could be strong and the ability to self-censor may be low. Likewise, inebriation, fatigue, illness and pain may potentially diminish one’s ability to think clearly and reach a rational decision about anything of importance.

When faced with an important decision while in the grip of strong emotions or similar feelings, honor your emotional state and focus on self-control. Give yourself time to calm down and gain perspective on what is happening. Forgive yourself, postpone your response, breathe and take a time-out. Have a cup of tea. If possible, you might also take a nap or a shower. Resist the temptation to respond to people or make decisions while you’re flustered or agitated.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Belgium, June 1577 – May 1640) The Fall of Man, Adam and Eve 1628-1629, courtesy of The Prado Museum, Madrid

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