Decision-making goes beyond gut instinct

by | 10 May 2022 | decision making

Have you ever noticed how often we use metaphors about our bodies, when we’re talking about decision-making? Our hunches, blind spots and frequent references to gut instinct suggest that we’re truly still wired, as our ancestors were, to make decisions guided by physical indicators. This blog post explores some of the problems with how we make decisions, drawing on sources from outside ourselves as well as leveraging what lies within.

Two views on the problem

Luckily, I get to see the decision-making conundrum from two different perspectives.

Working as an organisational consultant I spend a lot of time with groups of people who are responsible for making decisions, big decisions which affect many more people.  Boards, executive teams and directors are expected to have clear processes in place not only to make decisions but also to ensure they’re robust and defensible.  In reality, there’s a whole lot of “gut instinct” cited around board tables and there seem to be few mechanisms for challenging this, in the room, in the moment.

On the other hand, as an executive coach I support individuals who find themselves in two particular positions regarding decision-making.  Some are aware of their own tendency to fall back on hunches and are concerned about their blind spots.  Others are trying to find ways to improve decision-making processes without calling out the weakness in the current process for fear that this is taken personally.

My starting point is usually to explore with the client – whether it’s a team or an individual – how they approach evidence, the data on which the big decisions are purportedly made.  Research by Barends, Rousseau and Briner really helped me get my head around the complexity of this.  As well as setting out useful guidance on four types of evidence, they bust several myths.  Crucially, for some of my clients, they also identify the skills needed to work with evidence before reaching a decision.

Three keys to good decision-making

  • Breaking evidence down into different types is in itself instructive, as it reminds us that solutions are rarely neat and simple.  This reinforces a central tenet of decision making, that multiple sources of data are needed for triangulation. Single sources cannot be assumed to be trustworthy. 
  • Taking time over big decisions is not the whole solution; sometimes this is a mask for procrastination.  But often, I hear from clients that by putting the brakes on a rapid decision, they’ve enabled a better outcome.
  • Using that additional time for reflection pays dividends. A solution guided by different evidence and an informed appraisal of the evidence invariably proves more reliable and justifiable.

Diving deeper

At the start of making a decision it’s essential to frame the problem to be solved as question that can be answered.  This is a skill in itself!  It nearly always allows the rest of the decision-making process to run more smoothly.  Tim Harkness takes a whole chapter – a massive 10% – of his book 10 Rules for Talking, to explain the importance of agreeing what you are talking for.  That’s how important this stage is. He’s also clear on how much time, skill and energy it takes to reach agreement.  Not all decisions have to be made with 100% agreement from all parties. However those not in agreement have to be able to live with the decision. Everyone needs to know, understand and trust the process that got them there.

Sources of data

As well as drawing in information from other people’s work, for example through a literature review, many of my clients bring huge amounts of internal data to their decision-making.  But for some organisations, an over-reliance on “hard” data means that softer data about the culture of the organisation is ignored.  Even in companies where the impact of culture is understood, a new or forthright leader can still come a cropper!  Eager to make their mark, some new leaders are inclined to make important decisions based on the culture of their previous business.  I encourage them to take those important first 100 days to understand company culture. It’s time well spent on my part and on theirs. 

Not only do they need to take time to understand their new culture, leaders also need to build relationships with colleagues who have accumulated wisdom about the issue at hand.  That wisdom is another form of data. Furthermore, they need to spend time thinking about the impact of the decisions they’ll make on wider stakeholders – customers, shareholders, students.

The right skill set

There are many different skills required to make effective decisions. Few of us have all the skills to complete this task well.  An uber-skill therefore is the ability to gather around you the people who do have those skills.  Part of the role of the leader may be to articulate the problem in such a way that it can be solved. Equally important is assembling team members who can identify and share relevant information, and perhaps yet others who can assess how reliable that evidence is.  A further benefit therefore of having a clear process and a framework for decision-making is that it helps us identify the skills – and the people – needed to undertake each stage of the process. 

To conclude

Evidence itself is not the antidote to poor, instinct- or hunch-based decision-making, but it’s a great start.  Brought together with a deep understanding of context and an open and critical mindset, it paves the way for a trustworthy process. 

The role of executive coaching in all of this is to shine a light into dark corners, help clients understand the framework and work out where the gaps in their skills – and their evidence base – lie. If you’d like a chance to share – and improve – the way you support your team to make decisions, get in touch.