Productive Leadership: The Anatomy of Effective Decision Making

Before getting started on the substance of this post, I must give credit where credit is due. Much of the conceptual framework for this post is based on a fabulous article penned by Mary Goulet and published in Speaker magazine in April 2008. I found the content so compelling and clearly stated that I wanted to share it with my readers. Any praise you have for that part of this material must definitely be directed to Ms. Goulet.

The Difficulty of Making Decisions

We all struggle with decisions. Whenever there are options presented to us, we must always choose a path down which to go or fail to choose, which is still making a decision. The attendant risks of decision making engender stress and confusion in everyone – the more important the choice, the greater the stress endured. Yet, day in and day out, we continue to make decisions and weave our way through life.

What if there was a better, more straight-forward way to make decisions? What if we could greatly reduce the anxiety we experience when faced with options – both in our personal and professional lives? What if we could train ourselves to be more effective and efficient (and accurate) in our decision making?

The Body Parts Involved

Of course, all decisions are “made” in the mind. However, Ms. Goulet smartly identified three separate parts of the body that participate in all decision making – both euphemistically and literally. They are the Head, the Heart and the Gut. Though we could quibble endlessly about whether “gut” is really “intuition” and “heart” is really “emotion,” I like the sharp physicality of Ms. Goulet’s selectiosn and will stick with them here.

The Head

The Head brings analytical thinking to the mix. What are the facts and what do they mean in this situation? What else do I need to know about this decision? How will this play out and what are the risks of failure? What are the benefits?

The conscious mind loves to delve into these details and turn them around and around to see what shakes out. In fact, analysis paralysis – getting so caught up in the analysis that no decision is made – can result from too much “figuring.”

There has been and will always be a place for analytical thinking. The most valuable application of this type of thinking is in discovering new things. In fact, I would posit that much of what is called inspiration is often the result of dogged analysis – How can I make this better? or What else could be done to improve this process?

The big risk the Head brings to leadership decision making is over-thinking the situation and engaging in inefficient (and often ineffective) analysis. Facts are facts. No amount of analyzing them will change them. All decisions are fraught with the risk of choosing the wrong option. An extended analysis of those facts/options does not measurably change the inherent risk in the choice. Fear must be overcome, not accepted.

The Heart

The Heart contributes emotion to the process. Our hopes, dreams, and desires all deserve a nod in most every decision – personal and professional. The problem with “listening to your heart” is that the Heart is fickle. Our emotions change constantly, day by day, minute by minute. If we actually listened to the Heart all the time, we’d end up with a different version of indecision – ping ponging back and forth between options.

The lack of clarity this communicates to others is very harmful in any group dynamic, either family or professional. It is also hugely inefficient as people begin reacting to one decision only to have a second, countermanding decision issue later. This occurs even within an individual as your efforts in one direction become largely wasted if a different direction is later chosen.

Success comes from moving forward in a single direction with a concerted effort. Succumbing to fickle emotion produces a lack of clarity and diminished results.

The Gut

This is the part of Ms. Goulet’s framework that I especially liked. For me, it turned on the proverbial light bulb. I experienced one of those epiphanic “Aha” moments that we all enjoy so much. Here’s what she said:

The Gut delivers the decision. There no fuss, no muss, just a decision. Many times it’s that very decision that the Head and the Heart are working so hard to overrule. In fact, much of the energy expended in decision making is actually the efforts of the Head and the Heart to change the Gut’s decision.

It can also be said that many of us lose the decision in this cacophony of noise created by the Head and the Heart! That is, the decision is usually short and sweet, terse even. Moreover, there are rarely fireworks involved because the decision is simply a choice. It’s not a discovery. Thus, all of the analysis and all of the histrionics associated with decision making can be categorized as subterfuge, an attempt to blur and obfuscate the underlying correct decision being proffered by the Gut.

Worse, though, are the consequences of falling victim to this game played by the Head and Heart. We’ve all made decisions we’ve regretted. Many of them were clearly wrong in hindsight. Yet, the logic or emotion at the moment of decision seemed so very clear! Our minds are powerful tools and they are weapons that we use against ourselves if care is not taken.

Five-Word Decisions

As stated above, most decisions are concise statements:

Let’s purchase it.
This is not a good opportunity.
She’s the right person.
I trust him.

In fact, by their very nature as choices between divergent paths, most decisions can be stated in less than five words. Consequently, we need to seek out the five-word answers our Gut is communicating to us whenever a decision must be made.

No fanfare accompanies these decisions. Yet, they are some of the most important decisions we make as leaders and humans. Getting caught up in the hysteria of decision making reduces our ability to make good decisions. Learning to listen to the Gut – that quiet, firm, clear provider of the path to take – takes some practice.  The most effective way to do this is to clear your mind (and physical world) of all distractions for just a minute or two. Then, instead of “thinking” about the decision, listen for the Gut to give it to you.

More Efficient, More Effective and Less Stressful

The benefits of learning to hear, then trust, your Gut’s decisions means that you’ll make those decisions more quickly, which is more efficient. You’ll also make them more firmly, which is more effective. And, finally, you’ll make them with less stress because of the trust you have developed in your Gut.

Will all those decisions be correct? Probably not, but they’ll be as or more often correct than the current mechanisms you’re using to make decisions and it will provide the additional benefits listed above in the process.

Good luck!

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