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. It explains how to draw on sources from outside ourselves as well as leveraging what lies within.

Two views on the problem

Interestingly, 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 big decisions. Not only are those decisions costly, they affect many people.  Boards, executive teams and directors are expected to have clear decision-making processes in place. And their processes need to be 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 they also identify the skills needed to work with evidence before reaching a decision.

Keys to good decision-making

As a starting point, here are three areas to consider if you want to improve your decision making.

  • Break evidence down into different types. It’s 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. If your evidence only comes from a single source, how do you know that it’s trustworthy? 
  • Take a bit of time over big decisions. It’s not the whole solution – sometimes it’s 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.
  • Use that additional time for reflection. This really 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, do you understand the question? Can you frame the problem to be solved as a 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.  Psychologist 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 consensus.  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. Core to this is that everyone knows, understands and trusts the process that got them there.

Sources of data

External data draws in information from other people’s work, for example through a literature review. Many of my clients also 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. 

New 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, you need to spend time thinking about the impact of the decisions you’ll make on wider stakeholders – customers, shareholders, students or funders. Simply by spending time identifying the widest network of stakeholders with your team, you’ll not only ensure that everyone’s needs are understood, you will also build trust with your team and increase their buy-in.

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 your role as the leader may be to articulate the problem in such a way that it can be solved. Equally important is for you to assemble team members who can identify and share relevant information. You might also want to engage with 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 you 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. I 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, please get in touch.