Leadership Conversations – Decision making by Logic, Instinct or Intuition?


The Context

A few week backs I had to take a leadership class on effective decision making – when I started putting notes together, several questions popped up – is it an art or science? Is it always logical and data based? Are there patterns of how we make decisions? How prone are our decisions to errors? Are we risk takers or risk averse? Are there standard decision making frameworks to help people de-skill the process? How does an individual vs. group reach a decision? Who is to blame for a sub optimal or bad decision? Let’s discover some new perspectives on this…

The Situations

To understand decision making better, I thought of listing down various situations that could create decision making scenarios. If you are a CXO, you might say strategic or tactical – however, that might be too high level. To my mind, the following situations broadly capture 80% or more of the decisions more from a people and role/ownership perspective since the decision maker is a person – Corporate – Owner - Stakeholder (Leader) level, Manager - Supervisor (Manager) level, Staff -Individual level.

If we map these three broad levels of responsibility to situations to create a decision grid, this would include areas like Resource & Infrastructure, Functional, Policy & Process, Environmental (Internal / External) and People related decisions. If you add the time dimension, perhaps our decision grid would be three dimensional. This is our starting block to identify possible scenarios to consider.

Human behaviour and decisions

Next, I pondered on the choices does a human being have while making decisions. Well, a human being comes with a skill and behaviour repository that can include personality, personal bias, values, ethics, emotions, beliefs, morality, cognition and knowledge of various subjects and experiences.

If we consider how human psychology works, a person who is externalized and has time would prefer to get data to make decisions ‘logically’. In an emergency or exigency situation, a person would decide more on ‘instinct’. Additionally, sometimes when the answers are not very obvious or if we do not have a frame of reference ‘intuition’ might be the only natural answer as we use our higher levels of consciousness.

Means and Ends thinking

More often than not, a decision can only carry us forward part of the way – this bring us to the question of the sanctity of the decision. Additionally, even though the decision maker may set the rules, when it comes to execution, one has to let go the baton to the person / group who is acting on the decision. Sometimes, zooming out is necessary to reaffirm the big picture and key outcomes.

So the key learning here is that the ‘initial’ point of decision could be a ‘conclusion’ or ‘broad agreement’ or ‘resolution’ but we have to wait for the ‘outcome or result’ of the decision to know the exact degree of accuracy. So a decision is not the end in itself as it needs the decision maker to implement the action or rally the troops to act and get to the outcome.

Means and ends is also about not getting carried away with decision making tools several of which we have been exposed to – ideally tools are good for a reasonable level of validation of facts or even just setting directions within a given range of operations and error probability. Tools are also useful to tune decisions and make them better hence the reference to the means vs. ends to determine their usage. Tools thus have an organizational, contextual, understanding and time relevance.

The feedback loop – cause and effect?

Depending on the time dimension of the action and the veracity of the situation and variables, the decision maker and team would get feedback which could be strong or weak depending on how the feedback mechanism is setup. Given the frequent change and variability in today’s environment, accountability for decisions for both success and failures is often more personality or persona driven as it involves taking risks. In failure or conflict situations, blame games center around cause and effect rather than taking the feedback as an input and moving on.

Effective and Efficient decisions

As leaders today, we are constantly challenged to be effective and efficient decision makers. Despite technological advances, the human element of decision making cannot be completely done away with rule based / machine learning interfaces. This is also because the impact of a decision is also on people and they need to be spoken to. Hence if a leader can achieve a balance between logical, instinctive and intuitive ways of decision making, that would be a good step forward.

The last mile…communicate…communicate

Only those decision which are clearly communicated make sense to people. Even if there is partial clarity, it is better than not communicating at all while waiting for a perfect decision which may never happen. Decision related communication therefore, should be concise, succinct and clear with not more than five to seven highlights with suitable details following through discussion notes.

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