Research into the qualities that people value in their leaders has consistently shown that people want their leaders to be decisive. A 2014 study by Ketchum, a global communications consultancy, found that decisiveness was one of the top three qualities that help leaders build credibility. The results of another study, by global assessment firm ghSmart, involving 17000 C-suite executives over the course of 10 years, identified “deciding with speed and conviction” as one of the behaviors distinguishing the most successful CEOs from their less talented peers. Given how critical it can be for leaders to make the right choices and to appear diplomatic, leaders and aspiring leaders often fail to be decisive and instead spend too much time deliberating on their options. Unfortunately, this indecisive behavior can be detrimental.
How Does the Brain Make Decisions?
There are two general systems in the brain for decision making: a slower, more deliberate system and a faster one that is based more on instinct. The faster system is supported by deeper structures that have existed in the brain for a long time. Activity in a newer, more superficial part of the brain located behind our foreheads, aka the prefrontal cortex, is associated with the slower system for decision making. These two systems constantly interact to try to ensure that we make the best choices we possibly can
When you’re indecisive, you’re relying too much on the slow, deliberate system rather than “trusting your gut.” In many instances, your tendency to be indecisiveness arises when you are afraid of decision regret. In other words, when people struggle to make a decision, it is often because they are worried that they will make a choice that leads to a bad outcome.
Fretting excessively over the quality of our decisions unfortunately hurts our confidence, exacerbating our decision paralysis. While contemplating a decision, we are in a state of uncertainty, which can make us feel out of control and even pessimistic. Not only can these feelings make it harder for us to make choices, but the feelings may also be perceived by others, which can make us seem weaker than we are when we are in control and optimistic.
What Does Being Decisive Say About You?
Decisiveness helps to build credibility because of what it signals about the decision maker. While specific choices matter, the way we make those choices matters too and provides information on what we know and how we feel. When you act in a decisive manner, you are showing people that:
Some people are inherently more decisive than others, and the likelihood of being decisive correlates with specific characteristics. Indeed, researchers have found that personality traits like emotional stability are associated with decisiveness. Those who are more prone to delusion tend to be more indecisive. Indecisiveness has also recently been added as a diagnostic criterion for major depressive disorder in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM), which psychiatrists use to diagnose their patients.
Though data have been systematically gathered to provide evidence for the positive characteristics associated with decisiveness, we also intuitively sense that decisiveness is linked with competence. When people around us act decisively, we are simply more likely to view them as reliable and trustworthy.
The only way to intuitively know the right decision is to have relevant knowledge. Some information is so critical to our survival that corresponding decisions are built into our biology. For instance, we pull our hands off of a hot stove and recoil from rotten smells in fractions of a second. We don’t take time to deliberate on the pros and cons of our potential responses. Instead, we know intuitively how to react because our bodies are biologically programmed to know that certain stimuli are dangerous and how to act accordingly.
In addition to the instincts we’re born with, we develop new instincts as a result of experience. These new, learned instincts start out as information that we ponder in the more rational parts of our brains. As we use that information more and more, it gets transferred to parts of our brain that support more rapid decision making.
You need a lot of exposure to information for it to make its way to the part of the brain that will allow it to be rapidly deployed. What this means is that when you have the relevant knowledge and experience, you are able to quickly process information and make a fast decision. When people see you deploy fast decisions, they are therefore likely to assume that you are competent and well-informed on the topic at hand.
Tips for Improving Your Decisiveness
Decisiveness has several benefits, but just knowing those benefits may not be enough to enable you to actually be more decisive. So how can we make ourselves more decisive? Here are a few tips that can help.
- Collect some information. Sometimes we simply do not have a gut instinct on how to choose an action in a given situation. When that’s the case, chances are that you don’t have enough information for your brain to help tilt you in one direction or another. While it’s important to recognize that at some point, more information offers only diminishing returns, you do need some information to help you make decisions. If you feel stuck, think about what you want to accomplish with your decision and what one data point could improve your understanding of the possible outcomes. Once you’ve gathered even just a little bit of information, chances are you will have some instinct about the right decision.
- Recognize that failing to make a decision is a decision. When we fail to make a decision, we sit in a state of limbo where little new information can be acquired. However, once you make a choice, you move forward and collect data associated with that choice. Even in cases where it turns out that you could have made a better decision, you will now have more data to incorporate into your future decisions. So when you are feeling indecisive, remember that making no choice at all is itself a choice not to start acquiring new information.
- Get enough sleep. Research has shown that when people do not get enough sleep, they struggle to integrate information. Without this integration, it is difficult to make good, quick decisions. Sleep helps boost the health and efficiency of connections in the brain and facilitates communication. By getting adequate sleep, you can make it easier for the parts of your brain that support slow thinking and the parts of your brain that support fast thinking to interact, share information, and optimize decision making.
Decisiveness can not only make us appear happy, healthy, and competent, it can also make us feel that way. Of course, much of the value of decisiveness comes from what it actually means about our mental and cognitive state. Thus, forcing or faking decisiveness will likely not reap the same benefits. Instead, trying to appear decisive may put you at risk for appearing overconfident or for taking excessive risks. Ultimately, the best way to achieve the benefits of decisiveness is to actually become more decisive by enhancing your confidence in your ability to make decisions and in those decisions themselves.