Executive Briefing How to Make Better Decisions

Common obstacles to making good business decisions—and how to get past them.

By Dori Meinert Jun 1, 2015
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HR Magazine June 2015 Business leaders are tasked with making hard decisions—choices that shape the future of their organizations. Yet often the decision-making process they use is given little thought.

“The world has changed in ways that make decision-making more important than it used to be”—and more difficult, says Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Indeed, due to technological advances, the availability of “big data” and globalization trends, business leaders have access to more information than ever before, and they must make complex choices quickly and frequently.

While most people assume they can make good decisions if they only think hard enough about a problem, researchers have found that isn’t true.

“Our decision-making abilities are limited,” says Schweitzer, who directs an executive workshop on strategic decision-making. “The environment matters. The choices that we get matter.”

The Obstacles

Some of the obstacles to sound decision-making include:

Overconfidence. People want their leaders to be confident. And executives might truly feel confident in their decision-making abilities. But studies have shown that the confidence is often unjustified. “The problem is that when people succeed, they’re more likely to attribute their success to their own ingenuity and efforts than they really should,” Schweitzer says. They believe they know more than they do, so they don’t consider all the options.

Analysis paralysis. When people are uncertain about what the future holds, they often want to postpone a decision until they have more information. But they may never have all the information they want—or, by the time they do, it’s too late.

Emotions. People’s emotions can affect their decision-making ability—for good or bad. Anxiety can lead to bad decisions because people want to exit an uncomfortable situation as quickly as possible. Research shows that when an individual in a calm state is given bad advice, he or she will recognize it as poor counsel. But a person who is anxious will more readily accept bad advice. “We become less critical,” Schweitzer says.

Conformity. Group decisions can turn out badly because leaders don’t get the information they need. “Often that information can actually be found within the firm. But employees and colleagues do not tell leaders what they know because they think it’s prudent to be quiet,” says Cass R. Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014).

A Better Process

Good decision-makers ask questions that help them validate the information they rely on to make decisions. They “tend to vet successfully what information they pay attention to and what information to discard or discount,” says Francis Flynn, organizational behavior professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and co-director of the school’s executive development program.

People who make good decisions often develop a checklist or process to aid them.

“Sometimes, by formalizing that process, we promote a conversation around something that really should be a conversation rather than a coronation of an idea,” says Schweitzer, who is co-author of Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both (Crown Business, 2015).

Tactics that Schweitzer and Sunstein suggest that leaders use to draw out other views include:

  • Let others express their opinions first.
  • Designate someone to play devil’s advocate.
  • Ask for input before a meeting so individuals are less likely to be influenced by others.
  • Consider internal contests to gather more ideas and perspectives.
  • Seek external advice.

Once the information is gathered, leaders learn to navigate uncertainty by building flexibility into their decisions and by developing contingency plans, Schweitzer says.

“We aren’t sure how things are going to work out, but we need to make the best decisions that we can, given what we know now,” he says.

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