Recently, I spent a couple of great weeks in Scotland. The scenery and single malts were spectacular. The people couldn’t have been nicer (especially when they found out my full first name is Mac Gregor). The haggis was . . . well, there’s not much positive I can report about that.
But I also heard a quote that caused me to reflect about themes I’ve heard this year while coaching over 40 global senior executives. David Russell, a Scottish guitarist, once said,
“The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn.”
This quote reminded me of many of the challenges of relentless, tough decision making at the top of the house that I’ve heard this year.
One of the best things about coaching senior execs is that I get a chance to help them become significantly more self aware about how to leverage their strengths and address their development areas. When I hear or sense gaps that are holding them back from being able to solve problems more effectively, or stuck in habits that are consciously or unconsciously keeping them from reaching their potential, I ask questions to help them see and hear themselves more objectively, such as:
- “You told me before that you were really going back and forth on making this decision and losing sleep over it. But I think you already know the answer - did you hear what you just told me a minute ago?” (95% of the time, the answer is “No, what did I say?”)
- “I’ve heard you use the phrase “I feel boxed in by everything” three times in the last few minutes. That seems to have some meaning for you. What’s that about?”
- “So you feel like you’ve been trying that tactic for awhile and it doesn’t seem to be getting you where you want to go. What are some other options you could try?”
I’ve thought about this bridge crossing and burning metaphor and have a few observations that can be bucketed into three decision making categories that may be helpful to you – the past, the present and the future.
There is an immense amount of research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology about how the past influences your decision making ability.
On the positive, productive and hopeful side (from “How To Make Better Decisions”)
- If you have a lot of experience and are “making a decision within your area of expertise, it’s best to trust your gut.” “Chances are that you are subconsciously taking in a lot more into account than your rational brain realizes.” As we build experiences, we alter the neuro pathways in our brains, much as athletes or artists build muscle memory when they practice effectively.
- If you are making a decision in unfamiliar situations, however, it’s best to think things through as rationally as you can. When we are put into the position of making a decision for which we have no experience or trying to solve brand new problems, “our instincts are more likely than not to steer us wrong.”
- “We make our biggest blunders not when we are uncertain, but when we are completely sure of ourselves.” When we don’t take the time to review our assumptions (preferably with a good “devil’s advocate”), we run the risk of getting ourselves in deep trouble.
On the watch out list (from “What Influences our Decision Making?” - Discovery Fit & Health):
- “Our decision-making process is heavily influenced by past experiences, instincts, our emotional states, our capacities for delayed gratification and the strong desire not to make wrong decisions . . . When you face more and more options and information, it can complicate your thinking and increase your expectations of regret. Information overload can make you hesitant to make any choice at all, or to immediately regret your choice once it's been made. The number of other options is so high that you might mourn all the could-have-beens and fixate on the what-ifs. Simply knowing you may feel this way after the decision is made can color an otherwise rational decision, or influence you to put a decision off as long as possible.”
Are you thinking clearly and objectively when you are making a big decision? Or are you distracted in a avalanche of complexity, multi tasking and constant change?
- According to “Under Pressure: The Impact of Stress on Decision Making”: Psychologists Jane Raymond and Jennifer L. O'Brien of Bangor University in the UK wanted to investigate how cognitive stress affects rational decision making. The results . . . reveal that “distractions significantly impact decision making. The authors note that when we are stressed and need to make a decision, we are ‘more likely to bear in mind things that have been rewarding and to overlook information predicting negative outcomes.’ In other words, these findings indicate that irrational biases, which favor previous rewards, may guide our behavior during times of stress.”
- “Researchers also have found that men and women respond differently under stress, which also affects how they handle the combination of stress and decisions. Women tend to be more conservative about decisions when stressed, but men tend to make riskier choices [Source: Isanski].”
Another good reason to have diverse teams when making all those tough decisions!
Hopefully, Big Data, improving technology, and advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology will continue to offer the hope of more objective and better decision making. In the meantime, given the challenges of ambiguity, speed to market, an overwhelming amount of data, competitive challenges and higher risk /reward tradeoffs, there are a few things that my clients have done this year that I believe have helped them change the way they find the wisdom and courage to figure out which bridges to cross and which to burn:
- Publicly challenge your own beliefs in an open constructive manner – I’ve watched several CEO’s and their leaders improve their leadership effectiveness by understanding that all too often, their employees aren’t willing to speak up and challenge the boss’s beliefs or the prevailing “conventional wisdom” for fear of ridicule or being judged. Many leaders have been surprised by what their most junior employees or newest hires from other industries can come up with, if given a chance.
- Accept that not every decision will be a success – I worked in one great organization where the motto was “Test and Learn”. Have the courage to admit and learn from mistakes. (I’ve also worked in places where everyone who was hired was a potential star, but when they left for greener pastures elsewhere, all of a sudden they “weren’t that good anyway.”)
- Manage your stress more effectively – Many big decisions actually cause the stress which will reduce your ability to solve problems by 50%. Last minute decisions are often not the best ones – when in doubt, sleep on it and let your subconscious work its magic.
- You don’t need to be Atlas and have all the weight of the world on your shoulders – You can’t solve all the problems of the organization. Get your folks involved earlier on – when possible, get their input on the tough calls to develop their decision making and critical thinking skills and also help them feel more engaged in supporting the final call.
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G Burns & Associates | 40 Ingram Street | Forest Hills, NY 11375