How confident are you in your decision making?

© 2001 Royalty-Free/Corbis

One of the primary responsibilities of a leader is to make good decisions. It's actually one of the main responsibilities of anyone of adult age (even though my 5 year old thinks he gets to make ALL the decisions.) It also happens to be one of the four main pillars of the field of neuroleadership.

I would venture that you like to feel reasonably assured--if not flat-out confident--in the soundness of your decisions. So would it surprise you to know that your brain, in a way, is conspiring against you?!

Part of our evolution as a species involves the need to make things efficient. You see this in nature as well. Animals conserve energy and spend it wisely. Our brain likes to do the same thing. Using our prefrontal cortex (or PFC, the most recent part of the human brain to evolve) to temporarily store information, process information, or make decisions is effortful and energy intensive. You might say it's a bit painful to the brain. A good example of this is when you physically sit still for a few hours focusing on a project and end up tired when you finish. Your brain has been burning fuel the whole time, similar to the way your muscles burn blood glucose energy when they are being used. Our PFC also works best when focusing on one thing at a time in a serial or linear way (think single-tasking).

Another part of the brain that works in nearly the opposite way than your PFC is your nonconscious (some folks may call this your unconscious). The nonconscious involves long-term implicit procedural memory, can run many processes at the same time (in parallel, think multi-tasking) and is very efficient compared to the PFC (or conscious brain). Many of the things we learned to do as children--crawl, walk, eat, talk--were extremely effortful at first with lots of trial and error, got easier as we "got the hang" of it, and became hardwired over time to the point where we don't even give these things conscious thought. For instance, when was the last time you had to think about how to walk? Or brush your teeth? Or drive a car? These are all things that we can do "on autopilot" while we daydream or focus our conscious attention to other things around us.

Not only do we hardwire these habitual ways of doing and being, there are shortcuts the brain likes to take when dealing with life's complexities. Our brain is continually comparing what is going on right now with what we have experienced in the past in order to make quick judgments or decisions about whether and how to best proceed. You could think of these shortcuts as heuristics. You might even call them biases.

There are dozens of biases informing our daily lives. Matt Lieberman estimated over 150 cognitive biases shaping our behavior. The dangerous thing about many of these biases is they can act without our awareness, they are hidden (or implicit--there's that word again).

What does this have to do with our decision-making ability?

These hidden biases color how we perceive situations and, accordingly, influence the decisions we make about them. Although we'd like to believe we are making sound decisions, we may not be using the best thinking when doing so. Our brain expands less effort and feels good about "being right" but we are, to a degree, kidding ourselves.

One of the really surprising issues the research shows about hidden bias is that we all agree it is an issue, but we tend to think it's more of an issue for everyone else.

What's a human to do?

First--realize that our brain has been developing over millions of years and its need to simplify things and conserve energy are not likely to go away. It is going to want to take shortcuts. Biases exist and will persist.

Second--accept that we cannot eliminate these biases. We live in an overstimulating world with tons of messages hitting our nonconscious brain, creating implicit biases and shaping our perception.

Third--determine which biases might be at play in different situations. Knowing what you're dealing with is empowering.

Fourth--create processes to help "take the bias out" of the situation. In a way, we are substituting an external process for our brain's automatic internal processing. This can help improve your decision-making.

If you want to learn more about how to overcome hidden biases with respect to your critical projects, join our January 2016 webinar, "Set Your Projects Up for Success."

A few articles on the nonconscious brain and hidden biases:


2. "Measures of Anchoring in Estimation Tasks," Kahneman, D. and Jacowits, K., Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1995, pp. 1161-1166

3. "The Anchoring-and-Adjustment Heuristic: Why the Adjustments Are Insufficient," Nicholas Epley and Thomas Gilovich, Psychological Science, April 2006; vol. 17, 4: pp. 311-318.

4. "The Neural Basis of the Dynamic Unconscious," Heather A. Berlin, Neuropsychoanalysis, 2011, 13 (1) pp. 5-31 (New York)

What does brain-friendly sound like?

                    © Borisovv

                    © Borisovv

When thinking about what to write about this week, I thought it made sense to continue the thread from a post from two week's ago, "What's all the fuss about brain-based coaching," that continues from an earlier post, "So you really think you're brain-friendly." People can sometimes think they are being brain-friendly or using a brain-based coaching approach when, in fact, they are being more directive than they realize OR creating what I call "unnecessary threat."

A critical idea

One of the essential ideas we work with is from Evian Gordon's work (previously cited). It involves what he calls "the brain's primary organizing principle: minimize danger and maximize reward." If there is one idea our work is built on, it is this idea.

When teaching people about a brain-based approach, the brain's primary organizing principle can be easily misinterpreted or misapplied. People (teachers, leaders, managers...) think we need to eliminate ALL danger.

First of all, that is virtually impossible. Secondly, we don't need to eliminate ALL danger. We need to know how and when to work with "danger." Here's one approach:

  • First, we need to understand the nature of how the brain responds to danger
  • Then, we need to understand how danger is created for the brain
  • Next, we need to understand when danger is helpful and when it is harmful
  • Continuing on, we need to pay attention to how we are working with danger and reward in our moment-to-moment interactions based on what we are trying to help others achieve
  • Finally, we need to adjust in the moment based on what is actually happening for the person in front of us (whether danger or reward is being triggered in the desired amounts relative to our focus)

And since all of this plays out when we are interacting with each other (live, virtually, or electronically), it's helpful if we have a map for what a brain-friendly conversation sounds like. Let's listen in...

Manager: Hey Alex, I’d like to catch-up with you on Project X. It seems like all is on track. I simply need to provide a brief update on it to management. I’d like to find out what’s going well and what else you recommend based on the current state of the project. When would be a good time for us to connect and about how long do you think that would take?
Worker: Oh, OK. It probably shouldn’t take that long, maybe 15 or so minutes. Can we do it later in the week?
Manager: I need to provide the update by Friday so is there time before then?
Worker: Sure, I guess I can make Thursday work.
Manager: Excellent, what time? The morning is pretty wide open.
Worker: How about 10:00am?
Manager: That works. Is there anything you need from me to make this meeting most productive?
Worker: I guess what it is that you want to cover.
Manager: Mainly how complete we are on the project and anything we need to anticipate to make sure we bring things in on time and on budget.
Worker: Well, there is one issue we are having.
Manager: OK, thanks for giving me a heads up. Let’s not get into it right now, if that’s OK. When we meet, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what we might consider doing to address the issue and any other thoughts you have or things you’re learning based on where the project stands.
Worker: OK, I’ll put some notes together.
Manager: Thanks. I’m looking forward to connecting Thursday morning.
Worker: OK, thanks.

You may be wondering, “What’s so brain-friendly about this? Why is this so long? Why not just say, ‘Hey Alex, I need an update on Project X by Thursday morning.’?”

Rather than simply GIVING you the answers, I'd love to hear YOUR thoughts:

  • Where are the potential "dangers" of this request?
  • How/where is the manager minimizing threats?
  • How/where is the manager offering rewards?
  • What brain needs is the manager addressing and how/where?
  • Any other thoughts, questions or connections?

In other words, how brain-friendly are you? (Danger! Danger! Danger!)