Theodore Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
It makes sense. Yet, when it comes to the decision-making process, so many of us still wind up paralyzed. We’re terrified of making the wrong move and as a result, stay frozen in our tracks in the vain hopes that the correct decision becomes increasingly apparent. You already know that isn’t a wise strategy, particularly when it comes to managing your workload and leading your team. Instead, it’s much better to figure out what skills and tips you can pick up to get better at making those decisions that previously left you stuck.
“Leaders are not afraid to make a decision,” explains behavioral and marketing psychologist, Dr. Elliott Jaffa, “Followers are.”
Indeed, solid decision-making is one of the core pillars of effective leadership. But, no offense to Teddy Roosevelt, it’s often far easier said than done. Let’s dive into the different strategies you can use to uplevel your decision-making skills.
The Barriers to Solid Decision Making
We've all made good and bad decisions. But, why does this happen? Why are we able to make a solid decision one day, and then flub another one the next? There are plenty of obstacles that come into play:
“One of the obstacles is the false assumption that we don’t have time to think,” shares Mike Kallet, CEO of HeadScratchers and author of Think Smarter. “That’s ridiculous, because if you don’t properly think, you’ll make mistakes which end up taking a lot more time—let alone wasted dollars and missed opportunities.”
As a result, efficiency is often prioritized before effectiveness when it comes to decisions. “We get paid to get things done,” Kallet continues. “We get our satisfaction from getting things done. Thinking and getting clarity on a problem is perceived to slow things down.”
Another barrier to great decision-making is called anchoring. “Anchoring is a decision bias that stems from how human short-term memory works,” says Yolanda Berry, who holds a Master’s degree in Behavioral Economics and works as the Principal Consultant for UK Behavioural Economics.
Berry provides a simple example related to numbers. If she were to ask someone for the last two digits of their social security number and then ask them to guess the number of African countries in the UN, their guesses will be predictably higher if their last two social security digits were closer to 99 than to one.
“Even though there is clearly no correlation between these two things, the fact that this number is in our short-term memory influences our ability to make accurate guesses,” she says.
Decision fatigue is another phenomenon that can severely impact your ability to make sound decisions. “There is conclusive evidence that the sheer quantity of decisions impacts the quality of those decisions,” Berry continues.
Studies have shown that doctors are more likely to prescribe antibiotics at the end of their shifts than at the beginning. Or, judges are more likely to deny parole at the end of the day than at the beginning. This is all living proof of decision fatigue. We get tired of making decisions—which significantly decreases our chances of making good ones.
How to Make Better Decisions
Now that you understand what potentially stands in the way of great decisions, what strategies can you implement to increase your likelihood of overcoming those obstacles? Here are six tips to improve your own decision-making skills.
1. Understand the Problem
When it comes to the best place to start, Kallet warns that leaders first need to grasp exactly what the problem is—what root should this decision be addressing? By zoning in on the problem, you’re able to better identify and clarify your priorities.
“Most errors in decision making come from not being really clear on what the actual problem is and circling back on how our proposed solution will actually solve the problem,” Kallet explains.
“Is the goal of this meeting to reach a decision by the time we’re done in an hour, or is the purpose of this meeting to flesh out those options?” says Therese Huston, Ph.D. and author of How Women Decide in a Harvard Business Review Ideacast. “Those are very different priorities.”
Understanding the problem and then using it to identify the appropriate priorities will arm you with the context you need to make a more sound decision.
2. Eliminate Unimportant Decisions
Take a minute to think about some of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs. Now, imagine their most oft-repeated outfits. It seems like a strange question. But, I’m willing to bet that you’re picturing Steve Jobs’ famous black turtleneck or Mark Zuckerberg’s notorious gray t-shirt.
We’ve already discussed the impact that decision fatigue can have on the quality of your choices. By delegating, automating, or even removing decisions that don’t need to be made exclusively by you, you can save mental resources for those more important conversations.
“Planning in advance and pre-deciding will help reduce your decision fatigue,” Berry shares.
From figuring out what to eat for dinner each night of the week to assigning someone else to spearhead something that you no longer need a say in, getting that clutter off your plate can be a huge help.
3. Give Yourself Some Options
“Most people only have a Plan A and never consider Plan B, C, or D,” warns Dr. Jaffa. It’s important that you give yourself some truly different options when attempting to make a decision.
As Huston explains, we easily fall into the trap of giving ourselves only one option and tricking ourselves into thinking it’s two: “So we often will think, should I do this or not? Should I hire Samantha or not? Should I take a 30-minute lunch break and go for a walk or not? In each of those cases, there’s really only one option on the table—I’m going to make this change or I’m going to stay put.”
As a general rule of thumb, Huston says it’s best to give yourself three solid options to consider. She uses the example about a company deciding whether to build a parking garage to add some clarity.
“So instead of just should we build a parking garage or not, three options would be: should we build a parking garage, should we give all employees bus passes, or should we give our employees the option to work from home one day a week?” she continues. “That might all solve the same problem, but they’re very different options.”
When you give yourself numerous different routes to choose, it only makes sense that the final quality of your decision is sure to improve. You’re able to identify the true best way forward, rather than defaulting to a “yes” or “no” format.
4. Develop a Structured Approach
It might seem odd to come up with a structured approach to decision making. But, believe it or not, it can be a huge help to you.
“A good way to minimize the impact of anchoring and other cognitive biases is to take a very structured approach to decision making,” shares Berry, “If you train your brain to follow a specific framework when making business decisions, that rehearsed thinking process will reduce the influence of extraneous memories.”
It might sound overly complicated but it doesn’t need to be. Your own framework could involve something as simple as a series of questions you’ll ask yourself each time you make a decision.
“This is why most effective project managers always have a clear map of risks and dependencies in their project plans,” Berry continues. “The flow charts, contingency plans, and decision matrices not only weed out cognitive bias, they also effectively make decisions on a group of known possibilities in advance.”
Take some time to think of how you could be more structured in making decisions. Whether it’s a chain of steps you need to accomplish or things you should think through, having that framework will empower you to make choices with all of the necessary information in your back pocket.
5. Get Some Distance
Chances are, somebody's told you to “sleep on it” when you were faced with a major decision. If you previously rolled your eyes and brushed it off as a cliche, you might want to think again. As it turns out, getting some distance from a major decision can actually help to improve the quality of your final choice.
“Whether or not it’s sleep that makes the difference, the idea is that getting some distance from the decision is a really important step,” says Huston. “And you may not be able to take a week, but at least an hour could make a big difference.”
Take a look at the research out of the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics, for example, which used an ultimatum game and 168 different participants to conclude that delaying a decision typically results in a better outcome.
So go ahead and sleep on it. It can’t hurt.
6. Step Outside of Yourself
When you’re so close to a decision, it’s far too easy to miss the forest for the trees. It’s for this reason that scientists advise looking at the situation with this one question: How would you advise a friend who was in this same situation? Stepping outside of yourself can help you view things more objectively and consider all of the information and different perspectives at play.
Research from the University of Waterloo and the University of Michigan backs this claim up. The researchers asked 100 different participants a question pertaining to relationships. Some were asked to imagine that they themselves had been cheated on, while others were asked to imagine that their friend had been cheated on. At that point, they answered a questionnaire that intended to measure their “wise reasoning” skills."
As the researchers expected, the people who were thinking about what their friend should do tended to answer in ways that demonstrated more wisdom than those who were thinking about themselves,” explains Melissa Dahl in an article for New York Magazine.
If you’re feeling stumped on a decision, use this same outside-thinking tactic to help yourself get some fresh perspective and ultimately arrive at a wiser decision.
Time to Make Better Decisions
The ability to make sound decisions is a crucial element of effective leadership. But unfortunately, it’s one of those things that’s often easier said than done.
If you struggle with decision making (as so many of us do), there are several helpful strategies you can put into play to take your skills up a notch, including:
- Taking the time to understand the root of the problem.
- Removing unimportant decisions from your own plate.
- Ensuring that you give yourself enough options.
- Developing a structure or framework for making decisions.
- Taking a break and giving yourself some distance from the decision.
- Reflecting on how you’d advise a friend in a similar situation.
By taking the time to work through even a few of those steps, you’re sure to increase your likelihood of making stronger decisions in the future.