Bring confused thoughts to heel

April 7, 2006

Got a tough choice to make? Weighing up the pros and cons can be daunting, so why not share the load? asks Harriet Swain. And remember that with every decision made your confidence will soar.

Um. Er. Erum. Hmm. Oh get on with it. Making a decision can't be that difficult, can it? It depends what decision it is, says John Maule, professor of human decision-making at Leeds Business School. This is the first thing you need to decide to find the best way of tackling it. "Things that work well in some situations won't always work well in others," he says. For example, while you may be confident about your intuition, it may not be your best tool in every circumstance.

Maule says you need to think about how much time you have to make the decision and how much you can rely on past experience. "In situations where one has relatively little time or some considerable past experience, then it's more likely that what comes to you intuitively is appropriate," he says. Experience helps you not only to respond more sensibly but to recognise the situation more accurately.

On the other hand, you should also realise that your picture of the world could be out of date, warns Maule's colleague, Gerard P. Hodgkinson, professor of organisational behaviour and strategic management. "As the world changes, our thinking can fail to move with it," he says. Be aware of how a problem has been expressed, he says. The same information presented differently can influence whether people see the situation in a negative or positive light and therefore alter their response to it.

Maule says that people often see decision-making as choosing the best option, whereas it should be about achieving objectives. He advises thinking carefully about your goals rather than narrowing in on what seems to be the set of options in front of you.

If you do not have much prior experience of the situation, you will have to analyse your thinking especially carefully, says Maule, because everyone's cognitive abilities are limited. The simplest way of supplementing your memory is writing things down. "If you can get stuff down on paper, it frees up your mental capacity to think creatively," he says. Maule suggests thinking about your options and what the outcomes would be if you took those options, listing the advantages and disadvantages of each. "When people make a decision, they tend to look for evidence that supports their initial views," he warns. "Consequently, even if negative information is in front of people, they tend to be blind to it." Forcing yourself to list both advantages and disadvantages can help avoid this.

Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, says taking decisions should start with preparation. Unless time is very short, people should know a decision is about to be made. He says this is particularly important in any kind of collegial environment where people are expecting to be involved.

He suggests identifying early on who is likely to be affected by your decision and engaging with them before you decide, rather than meeting with them afterwards to justify it.

Hodgkinson says a group can often make better decisions than an individual, so long as it involves people from different backgrounds with highly developed interpersonal and information processing skills, and so long as the group dynamic is properly managed.

Achieving a consensus, provided it is not reached through bullying, is better than either an individual decision or voting, he says. Wooldridge says it is also important to check that you have been through the proper channels and that you can support your decision. "We work in a sector that values evidence."

Nevertheless, he says, there are some decisions that have to be made very quickly, and in that situation colleagues are looking for you to be decisive. "Their respect for you diminishes if you can't make a quick decision where it really has to be done," he says. But he warns that many decisions that seem quick and easy are not, and that you should still try to prepare and engage with people when possible.

He also stresses the importance of communicating decisions effectively. Not only do you need to tell people what has been decided, you also need to say how the decision was made. Then people can at least appreciate that you went about it the right way, even if they disagree with the result.

The way not to make a decision, says Michael Shattock, joint director of the MBA in higher education management at the Institute of Education, London, is on an awayday with other senior managers, when the tendency is for everyone to get a bit light-headed. If you must have an awayday, make sure any decisions made there go through the normal machinery afterwards, he suggests.

Once you have made a decision, says Wooldridge, you need a clear implementation plan, as well as provision for a review of the decision after a few months. If the decision is particularly tricky, consider making it temporary. And you should also be prepared to revisit a decision if you later decide it was wrong.

If you are still dithering, Henrik Orzen, research fellow in the Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics at Nottingham University, offers comfort. He says the experiments conducted at his centre show that while people making decisions do not necessarily live up to idealised theoretical models that assume perfectly rational people, they do tend to get more sensible the more deciding they have to do - and are happier with their decisions. "If you repeatedly have to make choices," he says, "over time you get a better feeling about what's right for you."

Further information

Leadership Foundation for Higher Education:   The Exceptional Manager: Making the Difference by Rick Delbridge, Lynda Gratton, Gerry Johnson, Oxford University Press.


Work out what you are deciding and why

Use intuition but do not rely on it

Consider your long-term goals



Be prepared to admit you were wrong.

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