How to avoid common decision-making traps and increase the likelihood of making good decisions

Rebecca Schalm: Four strategies to improve your decision-making skillsThere is no shortage of ‘What were they thinking?’ moments after a scandal breaks, causing us to question the quality of the leadership and the decisions they make.

Of course, we all face difficult situations. But how can we ensure due diligence before making a high-impact decision?

The more complex and nuanced the issue, the less likely there are clear-cut right and wrong answers. We can never guarantee we will always make the ‘right’ decision. We can, however, increase the likelihood of making good decisions through robust due diligence and anticipating and preparing for the consequences of our decisions.

Below are some typical decision-making traps we can all fall into and my suggestions on how to avoid them.

Failing to recognize the importance, scope, or complexity of an issue early on

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We’re all moving quickly and juggling a lot of balls. It sometimes feels like we’re on autopilot, moving from one crisis to the next. We risk overlooking something important when we don’t slow down and intentionally engage our brains.

This gets worse when our job involves big, complex issues or when we face something new without any prior experience to rely on.

Here are some strategies for avoiding this trap:

  • Schedule regular thinking time to review key issues and challenges you face. Big decisions shouldn’t be made on the fly, and consultations shouldn’t be squeezed into the crevices between meetings.
  • Flag issues you’ve never dealt with before. If you have no prior experience with something, it’s essential to slow down and gain a complete understanding of the complexity.

Limiting decision-making inputs

While we all agree there’s strength in diversity, most of us aren’t very good at following through. We tend to fall back on a small group of advisers and confidantes, even when we can anticipate the advice we’re likely to get. When the stakes are high, hearing familiar perspectives from those we trust can be emotionally reassuring.

However, we can fool ourselves into believing that hearing different perspectives is the same as hearing diverse ones. To maximize diversity of inputs and cast new light on an issue:

  • Seek out the advice and perspective of people whose opinions you don’t know or have never consulted.
  • Seek out the advice of people who regularly disagree with you.

Forgetting to plan for the consequences

Too often, we focus on making the best possible decision under the circumstances and then move on. The reality is that every critical decision has consequences we will have to deal with. When we don’t stop to think about what dominos could fall, we’re unprepared to respond to them.

Sometimes, how we respond to events is even more significant than the decision itself. In his book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, author Steven Johnson discusses using a pre-mortem before making a critical decision.

A pre-mortem is a strategy for imagining and anticipating the full range of consequences that could occur so you can plan for them, or even use those insights to reconsider your decision.

Doing a poor job of delegating decision-making

As leaders, we must delegate responsibility for decision-making to others. Leaders can struggle with which decisions they should make and which they should leave to others.

Some leaders exercise too much control and want to make every decision, even when they lack essential insight or expertise (the micromanagers). Some exercise too little oversight, leaving others to flap in the wind and make critical calls on their behalf (the absentee landlords).

Both situations can lead to problems in high-stakes situations.

As a leader, it’s important to be clear about where you need to operate.

We’re all confronted with difficult and complicated decisions, the consequences of which can have long-lasting impacts. How we approach them can make all the difference.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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