Thinking Out Loud

Learning To Make Good Decisions

We learn to make good decisions through practice. With young children, we start by giving them two choices, then gradually widen the possibilities and provide more choices. There is no formula to learning to make good decisions but using this child development model provides a basic guideline: start small and add choices if and when needed.

Much new information about how our brains process information has become available in recent years with many psychologists and behavioral economists studying the decision-making process. Such luminaries as Daniel Kahneman tell us that our brains make many decisions without our awareness. The behavioral economists have helped us understand that being logical does not necessarily guide us when making final decisions in our purchases. While getting objective information (data) may seem like a good idea, scientists have discovered that in fact we seek information that suits our (unconscious) bias. . . . And, of course, we’ve long been told to trust our gut, that somehow our body/mind truly knows what is right.

Given all this, how do we proceed in making good decisions? Those of us who process information interpersonally need to hash a situation over with someone we trust―the process of engagement helps us make sense of the choices. Those more intrapersonally wired need time to reflect internally, to make sense of the situation based on what we know to be true. For major decisions, however, most of us can benefit by both talking with someone else and reflecting.

In the workplace, we need to make all kinds of decisions, some so small and ordinary that they hardly seem like decisions. Do I staple these papers or use a paper clip? Do I use a half-inch or three-quarters inch piece of tape? Those aren’t decisions we remember at the end of the day, but they are there along with the consciously-made ones like which candidate to hire or how to boost lagging sales.

If you are a manager, you need to pay attention to decision-making processes with those you supervise—to help them fine tune their decision-making skills. Trust and the quality of the working relationship play a role here in letting others make decisions without breathing down their necks. Success comes only when they have the knowledge and skill context to make the decision (and are sanctioned to do so) and have had experience with and understand the importance of debriefing with you the decisions they make. This is part of the process of advancing to the next level of decision making.

Reflection then is endemic to the process. That may seem obvious but in the fast-paced business environment it is often a luxury—a luxury that can be your undoing if ignored. Without reflection decisions can too easily be made for the purpose of simply getting something done, crossing it off a to-do list, and moving on to the next task/decision.

Part of reflection is an evaluative debriefing, which requires skill and a broad knowledge of the business. You cannot evaluate a decision without knowledge of the larger picture, so a prime question when evaluating is to ask What external markers show that we made the right decision? This question, slightly rephrased (What external markers will show if we made the right decision?), should be included in the decision-making process itself to help you think through the situation and focus on the outcome/goal. You can’t wait until the decision is made before deciding on how to evaluate it but asking it again during debriefing is essential to making sense of and learning from any mistake.

Finally, good decision makers know when they need help: expert advice, factual information, time to sleep on it, active reflection, collaboration. There is no formula but simply recognizing that there is a process, one that you need to invent for yourself based on your own strengths and weaknesses, is more than half the battle. Discussing and honing that process is part of good mentoring and supervision in the workplace.

And sometimes, the best learning comes from making mistakes and dealing with the consequences. Good managers and leaders understand this part of the learning process, knowing when to let something play out and when to intervene. To always intervene ensures that those you supervise will not grow, but to not intervene when the consequences are great is also a mistake. Finding the balance is a collaborative process that is built on a good working relationship with both parties trusting and committed to growth and success.


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