Strategy Execution: 2 Tips to Improve Decision Making

Rick Lepsinger

Understanding how the brain processes and responds to information and how this impacts our decision making can improve our strategy execution.  Many people have spent time trying to understand how we make decisions.  Yet years of research within psychology, and supported by neuroscience, finds that the way we go about making decisions isn’t always rational.

There are two pairs of neural systems that have significant impact on our judgment and the quality of decisions we make—automatic reactions and voluntary processing and emotion and reason.

Automatic and Voluntary

Automatic reactions, such as recognizing a face, are learned responses based on experience that quickly bring about intuitive answers to situations.  These are the actions that kick in when a situation seems familiar and require little or no conscious thought.

Voluntary processing is our conscious and deliberate information manager.  It is slower to engage and can only support a small number of tasks at a time, while multiple automatic reactions can be carried out simultaneously. 

Voluntary processing, however, seems to account for only a small part of our overall behavior and frequently struggles to compete with our automatic reactions.  Think about it this way: our actions and choices are initially determined by automatic reactions and voluntary processing kicks in only when we “pause” because we perceive that the cost or impact of an automatic reaction may be too large.           

Emotion and Reason  

The brain also has separate systems that support emotion and reason.  Emotion refers to psychological processes that are triggered by information that results in a behavioral response. For example, a threatening situation such as seeing a bear heading for your tent would trigger the emotion of fear which might cause you to run away as fast as you can—which might not be the best course of action.

Reasoning, such as problem solving and planning, is more rational and takes a long-term view of the consequences of our behavior. 

Getting the Two Systems to Work Together

Making complex choices whose outcome is uncertain requires both broad based knowledge, such as facts about the situation, and reasoning strategies that revolve around goals, options for action, and predictions about future outcomes.

However, competition between automatic reactions and voluntary processing can affect our judgment. Likewise, the tension between emotion and reason can affect the quality of our decisions.  The challenge, then, is to organize our thinking and approach and leverage the multiple processes that contribute to our ability to reason and make them a positive force. 

Two techniques better balance automatic and voluntary processes and reason and emotion to improve our decisions. 

1. Involving the Right People

This ensures we include perspectives and experiences other than our own and helps fill in relevant data we may not have.

Involving people in decisions helps tip the balance in favor of voluntary processing and deliberation.  It ensures we have access to information and perspectives that might not otherwise be available to us and decreases the likelihood that we will take action and make choices based solely on the familiarity of the situation (“I’ve seen this before and I know what needs to be done”).  In addition, involving people increases decision acceptance, which is critical to effective execution once the decision has been made.

2. Using a Systematic Process

Using an objective, systematic method to make decisions ensures we look at the relevant information and consider both the benefits and risks of each alternative. 

This can address many of the potential problems caused by how we take in and process information and make choices.  It is a way to overcome our brain’s more immediate tendency to make decisions based on past experience and it reduces the negative impact emotions can have on rational thought by ensuring there is more of a balance between the two. 

A systematic approach also makes what is usually an internal thought process more explicit and ensures that the broad-based knowledge about each alternative is visible— which provides a platform upon which our individual or team’s reasoning strategies can more effectively operate. 

The brain is a complex organ and decision-making is a complex activity that uses many individual mental processes.  In addition, many of these processes compete for dominance and the quality of our decisions is determined by which ones win out.  Awareness of this complexity and the many processes that are involved increases the probability that you will monitor your reactions to check that you are not just making choices based on a bias or taking a familiar action that has been reinforced by experience. 

The challenge is to ensure we have access to a range of perspectives and information that might not otherwise be available to us and increases the likelihood that we will be more thoughtful and rational when making choices.

Making Good Decisions A Habit

Good decision-making doesn’t always come naturally to us, particularly within the chaos of a typical workday. We are prone to snap judgments and relying too much on instinct.

As leaders, we have to train ourselves to slow down, consider who needs to be involved and think carefully about the potential outcomes. This is easier said than done, but we can improve our decision-making with experience and training.

Rick Lepsinger is President of OnPoint Consulting and co-author of Flexible Leadership and Virtual Team Success.

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