According to the United Nations' think tank The Millennium Project, "the capacity to decide," is cited as one of 15 global challenges facing humanity today. It's difficult to believe that decision making is placed on the same list of global challenges as clean water, peace and conflict, and energy. Then again, if you've ever failed in business, you already know on a personal level what can happen as a result of poor decisions. (And it isn't pretty.)
"Poor decision making creates a vicious cycle that reinforces an already present anxiety about decision making," says Michael S. Vaughan,Managing Director & CEO of The Regis Company. For the past decade The Regis Company has researched and tested various techniques to identify how an individual makes decisions.
Vaughan's stance is that a great deal of time is wasted on undoing or justifying poor decisions, which again creates more anxiety about decision making. "This cycle continues and further reinforces an individual's fear of making important decisions," he says. And that means employees become less likely to step up, share innovative ideas, or solve problems.
Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, conducted a study that measured people's brain activity while they addressed increasingly complex problems. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to measure changes in blood flow she found that as people received more information, activity increased in the region of the brain that is responsible for decision making and control of emotions. But when the load became too much it was as though a breaker in the brain was triggered, and that prefrontal cortex suddenly shut down. Dimoka's research showed that as people reach information overload they start making stupid mistakes and bad choices.
The good news is that it is possible to improve decision making. However, Vaughan contends that it is not possible to teach people to become better decision makers by describing processes, providing checklists, following procedures, or punishing failures. Instead, by understanding a few basic human factors you may be able to avoid being pushed down the path of poor decision making.
Vaughan suggests that you watch for these five derailers as you weigh your options; a few adjustments to the way you think and execute will keep you on track.
Biases filter our experiences and affect the way we understand the world around us, only allowing us to see what we want to see. It is a human tendency to draw a conclusion without considering all of the evidence. As we gather information, the brain naturally references memories and facts to interpret it based on what we already know, but the information we receive is rarely entirely accurate, complete, or unbiased. Always consider the likely accuracy of the data, what might be missing, and what biases exist in the observer or reporter.
The more choices we're given the more tired and less effective we become. In the time between getting up in the morning and going to bed at night, we make thousands of decisions. Each choice we make chips away at our mental energy. When it comes time to make important decisions, we may be mentally and emotionally depleted, leading us down the path of least resistance. Don't get caught up in the small stuff. If you over analyze your daily choices you're exhausting energy that could be focused on the most important ones.
With so many demands on your time around the clock, it's tempting to try to do it all, and all at the same time. The truth is that multitasking actually slows people and organizations down. The brain is optimized to focus on one task at a time. Spreading our attention across multiple tasks becomes draining and leaves little energy for those tasks that matter most. Making quality decisions requires quality thought. Pay attention to what you're doing. Turn off distractions like email, the phone, and anything else that may take your mind elsewhere.
Fear is the most common thing that gets in the way of quality decision making. Fear of failure, fear of making the wrong decision, and fear of our own inadequacy all affect the actions we take and decisions we make. If you frequently question your ability to make sound decisions seek out a coach or mentor who can help you boost your confidence.
Organizational noise comes in endless streams of reports, metrics, memos, slide decks, emails, tweets, messages, and posts. At the individual level, there is internal noise, which manifests from our biases, fears, and competing priorities. Take daily breaks from the noise by engaging in meditation, exercise, and play.