As I have become older, and busier, and more distracted in my work and home life, my capacity for making decisions has felt really challenged, and from my conversations with colleagues, it seems I am not alone in that challenge. There are a number of things that can get in the way of making decisions.
I often say to my clients…’people don’t tell the truth and they don’t know what they want’. This is not intentional, but our natural cognitive bias and subjectivity get in the way. We are not good at challenging and stretching our thinking (which is why having a great coach is invaluable) so what we think we want and have articulated is often not quite right and there is a need to reflect deeper.
Another of our human challenges is our relative incapacity to manage complex and conflicting data, or simply volume of information inside our heads. When it gets too much, it’s overwhelming and the brain interprets this as threatening and pulls back it’s thinking in favour of protection.
Thirdly, our need to be ‘accepted’ is one of our strongest human motivational drivers, and the risk of making the wrong decision, or a decision that might negatively impact the favourable perceptions of others toward you, even if that risk is very low or indeed if the decision is necessary, will evoke an avoidance response and procrastination will ensue.
Here are three ideas you might like to consider in order to improve your decisiveness.
Figure Out What You Really Want
This is actually quite a tough one to do on your own, but take some time to reflect on the real outcome you are looking for. It may be useful to ask these questions of yourself:
- What are my big picture goals that relate to this, and to my life/career/role? Can I articulate them in one or two sentences?
- Is there a specific dilemma that is causing the need for this decision? Can I articulate it in one or two sentences?
- How do I feel about this issue and how do I want to be feeling around it?
- If resources were endless and there were no risks, would the decision be easier? If so, what are those risks and resource constraints and are they fixed or can they be managed?
- Is my gut/intuition telling me something that I’m not listening to?
- So, in one sentence, what is the specific decision I am needing to now make?
Investigate All The Options
Make a long list of options and alternatives. Consider including the options of doing nothing, going with your gut, and also the not so palatable ones like making the unpopular decision. Your first options will be the obvious ones…then ask yourself the following questions…
- What else could I do?
- What else could others do?
- What would Richard Branson do?
- What would X (important person you respect and admire) do?
Kill Off Choice
We live in a sophisticated, privileged and complex world with many, many options and choices. It’s overwhelming.
The latin word for decision literally means ‘to cut off’…or ‘to kill off’. Think about other words with that etymology…pesticide, suicide, genocide, insecticide…and fungicide (yes, that’s a word!).
Cutting off choices sounds severe, but is not liberating, it’s limiting. Making a decision frees you from the shackles of endless choices so that you can get where you want to go.
First list your options then connect back with your desired outcomes and bigger picture goals, and try to reduce the options to a maximum of 3…or less.
Hypothesise and Experiment
Your brain is not designed for, nor good at, absolutes. Your thinking comes from networks that are constantly active across all areas of your brain – an electrical storm of firing and connecting. The concept of stop, start and continue is more difficult than you think, the stop and start bit in particular. It’s a bit like when you don’t feel like going to a party or an event – it’s a real effort to go and would be much easier to just sit at home and watch TV, i.e., hard to get started. However, often, when you do make the effort you have a great time and then don’t want to come home – i.e. hard to stop!
Your brain loves to stay in it’s comfort zone because that is both non-threatening, and therefore energy efficient, both of which are of vital importance to your brain.
One way to overcome this is to adopt an experimental mindset – like a hypothesis. After gaining clarity, investigating the options, killing off choice, and connecting the most useful option to the desired outcome, you can then articulate the experiment that you (and possibly your team) are about to enter into.
“I have decided that we should ….my thinking behind that decision is …..l expect the outcome to be….but let’s treat it like an experiment and review it in two weeks to see if it has been the right decision”.
Pressure off…brain happy…you can move on to the next decision knowing that it’s not an absolute and reducing the risk of failure and humiliation.
My daughter is in Year 10. This is the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ year. To my delight I discovered my own copy from 1980 when I was in Year 10.
To support her I decided to read it again. Needless to say my experience of the book was somewhat more enjoyable and intellectually reflective than my original attempt, and I endeavoured (with her permission of course) to coach my daughter around some deeper insight around the story. My first question to her was “So why is it called ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’?”
Hmm, good question, Mum!
So we worked through that one and I threw her some other questions to think about. There is so much to reflect on in terms of the story beneath the story in this novel and I was keen to enjoy unpacking it with her.
When I asked what the assessment for the semester would be, she explained that they had to write an ‘intervention’. Apparently this means she has to pick an event or situation in the book and rewrite it with a different outcome. Not what I expected, and kind of negating the need to continue with the intellectual reflection (or so it seemed on first thought).
My response was ‘why?’ What is the purpose of that activity in terms of your learning and appreciation of the novel you have just read?
She had no idea. Her only (understandable) focus was on what she had to do to complete the assessment, and probably a bit of how and when it needed to be done in order to tick the appropriate boxes.
We live in a ‘what’ and ‘how’ world. It’s a shallow world in need of a good dose of substance.
Simon Sinek (Start with Why TedX) famously proposed that organisations that know why they do what they do are infinitely more successful than those that only know what and how they do it. (Check out his TedX if you haven’t seen it).
When we take the time to ask ‘why’ of ourselves and of others, we are infinitely more successful than when we only focus on ‘how’ and ‘what’.
The ‘what’ and ‘how’ is easy, but not meaningful. It’s the ‘why’ that engages us and connects us with the meaning that drives motivation. It is the ‘why’ that ultimately drives our decision-making. It is the why that enables insight and engagement.
Along the same vein, when my daughter was attempting trigonometry homework and exhibiting less than desired enthusiasm for the task (my recollection of the experience 30 years ago was pretty much the same), I suggested we google ‘why’ trigonometry. We discovered that it is used for things like measuring the height of waves, and to measure the height of buildings and mountains, and in video games and so on. Whilst she is still not a mathematics fan, asking and discovering the ‘why’ provided some context and meaning behind the activity and helped her to make the effort required.
Think about your conversations at work – are they ‘why’ conversations that test assumptions and get curious, or are they ‘what’ do we need to do and ‘how’ will we do it conversations that are uninspiring and repetitive?
Think about your meetings at work – are they ‘why’ meetings that challenge and stretch your thinking and lead to innovation and simplification and clarity, or are they task-focused ‘what’ and ‘how’ meetings that lead to detail and overwhelm.
The very simple act of stopping and asking ‘why’ can made a huge difference. Give it a try for a day.
Your team member falls into your office. They are emotional. Something has happened and they need to get it off their chest. You know that you just need to give them the opportunity to vent.
During that venting process, there is a lot of blaming, regret, frustration…but at least they are getting it off their chest. You look at your watch, an hour has passed, no sign of letting up, and you are feeling like crap now…the negative energy is contagious.
So here’s the thing…venting is not useful.
Yes, we have been taught that it is necessary and of value, but my belief is that it serves no useful purpose.
- It wastes valuable time that could be focused on moving to a solution or resolution – like when you stuff around getting ready to go somewhere, then are late and miss it anyway, so why did you bother – nothing gained.
- It reinforces the issues by going over and over them – like a child over-doing the colouring in to the point where the paper tears
- It reinforces and extends the emotional experience associated with the issue – by keeping it alive, even taking it to new levels of negativity – like when you use a magnifying glass to use the sun to set an ant on fire (no I never did that – someone told me about it).
So why do vent?
- It feels good. It feels like problem-solving. But it’s not.
- It alleviates stress and tension in the moment, but not long term.
- An inevitable sympathetic response makes you feel better, like you are not alone.
I believe there are two things that are really happening here. Firstly, the ventor is avoiding the effort and accountability associated with owning the situation and owning progression to a solution i.e., they want to pass the buck. But most importantly…
‘People vent, whinge and blame because they haven’t felt heard!’
If you have a team of ventors, or whingers, or blamers…begin with taking the time to let them feel heard. Here are three steps you can take to help them feel heard and then redirect their energy to more useful places.
- Validate what they are saying, but ‘shrink wrap’ it into factual, manageable chunks – ‘So what you are saying is that John didn’t deliver for the third week in a row’
- Focus on their emotion, not the content – ‘I can see that you are disappointed in this outcome.’
- Redirect their focus – ‘So what is it you need to do to move beyond this…’ or ‘So what is the thinking you need to do, or action you now need to take so this situation changes?
You will find your own language around this, just follow the general approach.
Sometimes it’s useful to get back to basics.
On a daily basis I hear of the motivation and engagement challenges that leaders face. We live in an evolved, sophisticated social world, yet our brains have not evolved at the same rate and are still designed to survive and respond in a relatively primitive social world.
All humans have a one-track mind.
The fundamental role of the brain is to ensure the perpetuation of the species …
which is, actually, just as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. To achieve this important goal your brain does two things:
it seeks to protect you from threat
(anything that might lead to your death or disablement), and
it seeks reward
(anything that will keep you alive and thriving).
When you are in ‘threat’ mode (i.e., checking to make sure everything is safe) your capacity for logic, creativity, seeing possibilities and being open-minded and curious is significantly inhibited. Your brain will instruct all non-essential functioning to go ‘on hold’ till the threat is managed or gone. It’s like a fire alarm or bomb threat in a high-rise building…until the ‘all clear’ is given, all non-critical work and activity (ie, except for getting people out of the building and making sure all is safe) is abandoned.
BUT…the circumstances that impact our perception of threat have changed significantly. The brain does not distinguish between physical and psychological or social threats – they are treated with a similar ‘threat’ response in the brain.
Primitive threats tended to be more physical and included …
- wild animals
- crazy neighbours with spears
- commonly occurring famine, floods and drought
- abandonment or ostracisation from the tribe which potentially led to no food, water or shelter.
The more common threats we experience today in a country like Australia tend to be more of a social nature and include…
- social or contribution rejection;
- discrimination, loneliness, embarrassment and humiliation;
- changing goal posts and the rate of change;
- lack of control over our work environments;
- financial insecurity;
- social media jealously (everybody looks like their life is better than mine);
- high social expectations and the impact of media on our sense of ’normality’ and our ability to achieve that normal (i.e., driving a fab car, huge house with a pool, looking like a model) and so on.
The problem is that the definition of ‘threat’ is ‘anything that is not expected’.
Think about it…how many times in a day do you experience something you didn’t expect? How many times do things not go to plan? How many times do you and others react in ways you didn’t predict? And as a result, how much time and energy in your day is channelled into making sure that these potential threats check out to be ‘ok’?
The answer: more than is useful in terms of us remaining productive and engaged. Way too much time in our day is ‘wasted’ on responding to the calls from our primitive brain. Until we feel physically and psychologically safe, we cannot function to our potential or learn or adapt.
The solution: we must understand and learn how to manage and change our habitual responses and shift to more useful ones. This is where taking a neuroscience approach to leadership can help.
The role of neuroscience is to explain behaviour in terms of the activities of the brain. And we now understand our ‘operating system’ so much more, and indeed enough to understand that we can influence and evolve it’s primitive processes to be more aligned and useful in today’s sophisticated social world.
Leading well requires mastery over the one-track mind. Mastery over one’s own mind, and the skill to support others to a level of awareness around their own primitive responses.
This is about increasing our human skills – our understanding of how humans are really motivated, how they tick. We need to bring back some substance into our leadership.
My thoughts around developing Leaders of Substance are outlined in this video.
The capacity to diagnose and respond effectively to a lack of psychological safety – in self and in others – is now a critical leadership skill. If you are not playing in this space…it’s time to at least take a look.