How confident are you in your decision making?

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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 influences your decisions?

If you were to look back on a recent decision that you made, a decision that maybe didn't turn out the way you had hoped, how clear are you about why things turned out the way they did?

I recently had to deal with a decision gone really wrong. As I reflected on the thought process that lead me to make the decision, I have to admit, I wasn’t at my best.

I didn't think through the decision well enough and I allowed my decision to be influenced by the stresses around me.  That poor decision placed unnecessary stress on my team and on our focus. That created a domino effect that led to events that could have been avoided.

As I reflect back on the moments leading up to the decision, I now better understand what influenced my decision.  A big piece of that landscape is the implicit or hidden biases we hold. The truth is, those same influences (and biases) that effected my decision-making haven't gone away. They can continue to influence my thought process if I don't pay more conscious attention to them. Whether and how I bring self-awareness to those influences is up to me. The good news is, we can strengthen our mental circuitry for awareness. We can also reduce the effect of these hidden biases.

To better understand what to do about the hidden biases that can influence our day-to-day decisions, stay tuned for our next neuroscience-based blog from Paul McGinniss, our Program Director and Master Facilitator.

To learn how to overcome the hidden biases that can negatively impact your critical projects, join our January 2016 webinar "Set Your Projects Up for Success."

To "give the gift of coaching that gives the gift of learning," please support our #CoachingforGood campaign.

Grab the wheel from your emotional brain.

In our last post, Laurie wrote about the nature of emotion and how our brain can quickly (and easily) take over a situation and derail us. Even the emotional state of others can impact us, especially those in our "in-group."

What does any of this have to do with steering wheels and driving?

As humans, we are predisposed to live, to survive. In order to do that, the brain has evolved in such a way that when (real or perceived) threats are detected, it gets our brain's attention. Easily and quickly. And when it does, it engages our limbic system. The limbic system is a powerful and primeval brain region (heavily linked to emotion, memory and learning) and it quickly shifts gears in the brain from a cognitive proactive place, where we are at the wheel, to an unconscious reactive place, where we switch to autopilot mode. It also marshals resources from and prepares the body to fight or flee the (real or perceived) danger.

While this may be great for survival in the face of real dangers, it's not always an optimal choice in response to perceived dangers. To our brain, however, many "less than significant" threats can seem like life or death situations. And the shifting process happens in milliseconds. If we don't notice the shift and are not able to control the shift, we are quickly at the mercy of an "emotional" brain (and by emotional, we are referring primarily to a limbic state of mind). This is linked to Evian Gordon's Brain 1-2-4 Model (see Link 1). The "1" is the brain's core organizing principle (minimize danger & maximize reward), the "2" is the two primary modes of brain function (conscious and nonconscious or automatic), and the "4" refers to four key brain processes: emotion, feeling, thinking, and self-regulation. Emotion happens at an unconscious level, feeling is the conscious experience of emotion, thinking is our conscious cognitive processing and self-regulation is a way of directing or controlling our consciousness.

So what do we do about this?

As mentioned above, we work with the brain's ability to change itself by growing our ability to notice and control these shifts. Like it or not, this starts with your mindfulness muscles. For some leaders, the word mindfulness sounds squishy or weak or froo froo. Maybe so. But mindfulness, simply put, means noticing.

Noticing what?


While we have this capacity, our brain is easily distracted (looking out for and responding to threats), which is why it is not a strong network. By developing a simple mindfulness practice, you can begin to strengthen this network. A strong mindfulness network has significant positive implications (See Link 2, 3, 4).

But noticing is not enough. We have to DO something about what we notice. We have to control (think self-regulation) the shifting energy in our brain/body. This is where strengthening our brain's "braking system" comes into play. The braking system is related to the (right) ventrolateral prefrontal cortex or RVLPFC (see Link 5). The braking system is what is activated when we are exercising self-control. Not checking email every 2 minutes, walking by the ice cream store, getting out of bed rather then hitting the snooze button--these all involve our braking system. And when we strengthen our braking system, we can apply our brakes more quickly and stop ourselves from going from a conscious to a nonconscious mode. This allows us to make more informed decisions in the face of emotional situations.

It seems this is ever-more needed in the face of today's current events. There are a multitude of issues playing out nationally and on the world stage that are emotional powder kegs. Making decisions (can anyone say "creating policy") from an emotional (limbic) place can be lead to just as scary a place as what triggered the emotion in the first place.

So when emotions start to run high, notice the shift quickly (be mindful), apply your brakes (self-control), and take a more thoughtful approach to keep moving forward.

After all, you--not your brain--have eyes and belong in the driver's seat.

If you want to learn more about how to achieve these results, contact us at


1. "Brain 1-2-4 Model," Evian Gordon

2. "The Mindful Brain and Emotion Regulation in Mood Disorders," Farb, Anderson, Segal

3. "Mindfulness meditation training alters cortical representations of interoceptive attention," Farb, Segal, Anderson

4. "Minding One’s Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alters the Neural Expression of Sadness," Farb et al

5. "The brain's braking system," Matthew D. Lieberman