The Real Key to Making Great Decisions, According to Neuroscience

Biases, usually unknown, can impede our ability to make great decisions -- but this process can help eliminate them.

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In a lot of cases, making a decision is not a huge deal. If you have a choice between eggs or a smoothie for breakfast, either way, you get good fuel for your day. But, when you’re in business with big money on the line and people expect you to lead, making great decisions becomes critical. Unfortunately, your brain can trip you up instead of working in your favor. Why does this happen, and how can you get your brain to cooperate to achieve awesome results?

Relying on Patterns and Feelings Can Lead to Quick (but Flawed) Conclusions

In “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions,” Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein explain that your brain naturally looks for patterns to figure out what’s going on. Those patterns are connected to feeling-based memories or “memory tags.” 

This pattern recognition and emotional tagging helps you make decisions quickly, and sometimes it can drive you to a decision that is beneficial. But, it often clouds your judgment, too. A good example might be investing in a friend’s company just because you’ve had so many happy, positive experiences with that person over the years, rather than on the merits of the business. 

So, how come you don’t notice this is happening? Most of the time, you stay blind to it because so much of your mental work happens subconsciously. You also might not always have good checks and balances in place to protect yourself and make you more aware. 

How to Safeguard Yourself

In order to get out of this trap, you need systematic ways to see the sources of bias you have. Campbell, Whitehead, and Finkelstein say that you can spot the three main “red flag conditions” – inappropriate self-interest, distorting attachments, and misleading memories – by going through the following seven steps:

  1. Lay out your range of options
  2. List the main decision-makers involved in the choice
  3. Choose one decision-maker to focus on and figure out the red flags that could distort their thinking
  4. Check for inappropriate self-interest or distorting attachments (i.e., strong bonds with people, places or things)
  5. Check for misleading memories (i.e., ones that make you overlook or undervalue something important in your situation)
  6. Repeat with the next most influential decision-maker involved
  7. Review the red flags and put safeguards in place if you find bias

If you find that you or someone you’re working with might be at risk for skewed thinking, you have three main safeguard options: getting new information or a different take, introducing additional debate and/or challenge, and imposing stronger governance. For example, you might bring in an independent consultant, form a committee to review your options, or require that you need approval at a higher level before you move forward.

The Mental Shift You Need to Use the System Well

When you look at Campbell, Whitehead, and Finkelstein’s process and safeguards, you can see that it’s not rocket science. It’s really just admitting you can’t always see exactly what has sway in your choice by yourself, slowing down and zooming out to pinpoint what influences you, and then taking action to throw out or limit those factors. 

But today’s companies are under enormous pressure to move quickly. Leaders often feel like, if they don’t respond quickly, they’ll lose out and competitors will win. And most people don’t like to admit that their brain did something subpar, even if it happens to everybody. They don’t want to run the risk of seeming weak or incompetent.

If you want to make better choices as a leader consistently, you have to let go of the idea that everything has to happen at the speed of light, or that people will think less of you for admitting you’re human. It’s easier to make this mental shift when you put the emphasis on doing things the right way, rather than just plowing through. Processes are designed to protect you and make it easy for others to run your ship if needed, and taking the time to go through these steps is an investment in what you’re trying to build. 

With a Bias-Check System and Safeguards, You Can Be a Great Decision-Maker

Everybody’s prone to making poor choices once in a while simply because the brain isn’t perfect, but a good system for discovering bias can help you limit these poor choices and make overall better calls. To ensure that you and your company both thrive, it is necessary to accept that the time it takes to use this kind of system is worthwhile. Then, thread the above steps and safeguards into your everyday work. You still might make missteps here or there, but they’ll likely happen far less often than if you stayed without a system at all.

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