The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

Your Search for decision making

over thinkingI was intrigued but not surprised. The a-ha moment happened as I discussed the pitfalls of over-thinking with a group of 70 transportation leaders. It could have been any group of leaders. Perhaps it is evident: Leaders develop good and bad decision-making habits and so do organizations. I work with individual leaders to develop their capacity for balanced decision-making.  But, organizations also develop habits – ways of relating or responding – that may be productive or not.  The organizational decision-making pattern is learned or influenced in part by the leader.

I see two implications:

  • The same principles for balanced decision-making apply to organizations as to individuals.  Like an individual, organizations can practice and reinforce productive decision-making until the collective “brain” of the organization is rewired.
  • The leader’s impact extends beyond the immediate decision. The leader is the decision-making model for the organization. Over-think it and a message is sent. Have a knee-jerk reaction and another message is sent. Exhibit balanced decision-making and a model is created that reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s consider, for example, a tendency to over-think decisions. Over-thinking is characterized by delayed decisions, a relentless need for more information, and analysis paralysis. Over-thinking wastes time, causes missed opportunities and reduces ROI. And while it may be a characteristic attributed to a leader, an over-thinking organization moves at a slow, slogging pace.

An over-thinking organization creates a culture of caution that permeates its collective thinking. Early warning signs of an over-thinking organization include constant striving for more data and analysis, reluctance to make a recommendation, and bumping the decision to a higher level. Cautiousness grinds progress to a halt.  Rather than decide and move on, the organizational unit studies and vets and studies even more. As with an individual the way out is to first notice the hesitancy and then to probe the organizational discomfort.  What is the underlying feeling within the group? Why is there fear of moving forward?  What repercussions lurk – either real or imagined – that color the forward progress of the group? Once those intangible issues are surfaced and articulated, there is a chance for the group to choose a different path.  But an organization is more complex than an individual.  Although difficult, deeply ingrained organizational habits can be changed.  As with an individual, that change comes as a result of practice, reinforcement and focused attention. Did I mention practice?  Did I mention reinforcement?  This is hard and it requires determination. It is the practice and focused attention that will ultimately rewire the organization’s collective brain.  Members of the organization, managers and leaders must stay vigilant to the ease with which decision-making can slide into old, familiar patterns. As in an individual’s brain, habitual responses are easier, faster, and comforting for the organization.  But they may not be productive.

The leader’s role is even more crucial. It’s important for a leader to develop good decision-making practices as part of her skill set and it is even more important to be an example of productive decision-making. The leader’s decision-making approach is mimicked and modeled – perhaps more subconsciously that consciously.

When a leader gets lost in over-thinking, that behavior trains the rest of the office. An over-thinking leader creates a culture of restraint with overly-cautious team members who are risk averse and who have an avoidance mentality. Unhelpful behaviors exemplified by the leader are passed along to the staff perpetuating suboptimal decision-making. It’s a huge price to pay.

Conversely, a leader who models balanced decision-making that uses both cognition and intuition grows a staff with deep awareness and capability. This type of decision-making also takes individual practice and persistence.  However, the ROI is significant.  The organization benefits from sound leadership decisions and staff become receptive and capable with the depth to choose well-balanced responses. It cultivates a healthier organization and positions individuals to grow into insightful leaders. When the leader cultivates balanced decision-making patterns, it permeates the organization like a breath of fresh air.

So what about you and your organization? Are you as a leader, developing balanced and insightful decision-making patterns?  Have you looked at the decision-making patterns of your office? As you develop yourself, you feed them.  It’s worth the practice and persistence.

 

DecisionsI’m intrigued but not surprised. The a-ha moment happened as I discussed the pitfalls of over-thinking with a group of 70 transportation leaders. It could have been any group of leaders. Perhaps it is evident: Leaders develop good and bad decision-making habits and so do organizations. I work with individual leaders to develop their capacity for balanced decision-making.  But, organizations also develop habits – ways of relating or responding – that may be productive or not.  The organizational decision-making pattern is learned or influenced in part by the leader.

I see two implications:

  • The same principles for balanced decision-making apply to organizations as to individuals.  Like an individual, organizations can practice and reinforce productive decision-making until the collective “brain” of the organization is rewired.
  • The leader’s impact extends beyond the immediate decision. The leader is the decision-making model for the organization. Over-think it and a message is sent. Have a knee-jerk reaction and another message is sent. Exhibit balanced decision-making and a model is created that reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s consider, for example, a tendency to over-think decisions. Over-thinking is characterized by delayed decisions, a relentless need for more information, and analysis paralysis. Over-thinking wastes time, causes missed opportunities and reduces ROI. And while it may be a characteristic attributed to a leader, an over-thinking organization moves at a slow, slogging pace.

An over-thinking organization creates a culture of caution that permeates its collective thinking. Early warning signs of an over-thinking organization include constant striving for more data and analysis, reluctance to make a recommendation, and bumping the decision to a higher level. Cautiousness grinds progress to a halt.  Rather than decide and move on, the organizational unit studies and vets and studies even more. As with an individual the way out is to first notice the hesitancy and then to probe the organizational discomfort.  What is the underlying feeling within the group? Why is there fear of moving forward?  What repercussions lurk – either real or imagined – that color the forward progress of the group? Once those intangible issues are surfaced and articulated, there is a chance for the group to choose a different path.  But an organization is more complex than an individual.  Although difficult, deeply ingrained organizational habits can be changed.  As with an individual, that change comes as a result of practice, reinforcement and focused attention. Did I mention practice?  Did I mention reinforcement?  This is hard and it requires determination. It is the practice and focused attention that will ultimately rewire the organization’s collective brain.  Members of the organization, managers and leaders must stay vigilant to the ease with which decision-making can slide into old, familiar patterns. As in an individual’s brain, habitual responses are easier, faster, and comforting for the organization.  But they may not be productive.

The leader’s role is even more crucial. It’s important for a leader to develop good decision-making practices as part of her skill set and it is even more important to be an example of productive decision-making. The leader’s decision-making approach is mimicked and modeled – perhaps more subconsciously that consciously.

When a leader gets lost in over-thinking, that behavior trains the rest of the office. An over-thinking leader creates a culture of restraint with overly-cautious team members who are risk averse and who have an avoidance mentality. Unhelpful behaviors exemplified by the leader are passed along to the staff perpetuating suboptimal decision-making. It’s a huge price to pay.

Conversely, a leader who models balanced decision-making that uses both cognition and intuition grows a staff with deep awareness and capability. This type of decision-making also takes individual practice and persistence.  However, the ROI is significant.  The organization benefits from sound leadership decisions and staff become receptive and capable with the depth to choose well-balanced responses. It cultivates a healthier organization and positions individuals to grow into insightful leaders. When the leader cultivates balanced decision-making patterns, it permeates the organization like a breath of fresh air.

So what about you and your organization? Are you as a leader, developing balanced and insightful decision-making patterns?  Have you looked at the decision-making patterns of your office? As you develop yourself, you feed them.  It’s worth the practice and persistence.

 

I’m intrigued but not surprised. The a-ha moment happened as I discussed the pitfalls of over-thinking with a group of 70 transportation leaders. It could have been any group of leaders. Perhaps it is evident: Leaders develop good and bad decision-making habits and so do organizations. I work with individual leaders to develop their capacity for balanced decision-making.  But, organizations also develop habits – ways of relating or responding – that may be productive or not.  The organizational decision-making pattern is learned or influenced in part by the leader.

I see two implications:

  • The same principles for balanced decision-making apply to organizations as to individuals.  Like an individual, organizations can practice and reinforce productive decision-making until the collective “brain” of the organization is rewired.
  • The leader’s impact extends beyond the immediate decision. The leader is the decision-making model for the organization. Over-think it and a message is sent. Have a knee-jerk reaction and another message is sent. Exhibit balanced decision-making and a model is created that reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s consider, for example, a tendency to over-think decisions. Over-thinking is characterized by delayed decisions, a relentless need for more information, and analysis paralysis. Over-thinking wastes time, causes missed opportunities and reduces ROI. And while it may be a characteristic attributed to a leader, an over-thinking organization moves at a slow, slogging pace.

An over-thinking organization creates a culture of caution that permeates its collective thinking. Early warning signs of an over-thinking organization include constant striving for more data and analysis, reluctance to make a recommendation, and bumping the decision to a higher level. Cautiousness grinds progress to a halt.  Rather than decide and move on, the organizational unit studies and vets and studies even more. As with an individual the way out is to first notice the hesitancy and then to probe the organizational discomfort.  What is the underlying feeling within the group? Why is there fear of moving forward?  What repercussions lurk – either real or imagined – that color the forward progress of the group? Once those intangible issues are surfaced and articulated, there is a chance for the group to choose a different path.  But an organization is more complex than an individual.  Although difficult, deeply ingrained organizational habits can be changed.  As with an individual, that change comes as a result of practice, reinforcement and focused attention. Did I mention practice?  Did I mention reinforcement?  This is hard and it requires determination. It is the practice and focused attention that will ultimately rewire the organization’s collective brain.  Members of the organization, managers and leaders must stay vigilant to the ease with which decision-making can slide into old, familiar patterns. As in an individual’s brain, habitual responses are easier, faster, and comforting for the organization.  But they may not be productive.

The leader’s role is even more crucial. It’s important for a leader to develop good decision-making practices as part of her skill set and it is even more important to be an example of productive decision-making. The leader’s decision-making approach is mimicked and modeled – perhaps more subconsciously that consciously.

When a leader gets lost in over-thinking, that behavior trains the rest of the office. An over-thinking leader creates a culture of restraint with overly-cautious team members who are risk averse and who have an avoidance mentality. Unhelpful behaviors exemplified by the leader are passed along to the staff perpetuating suboptimal decision-making. It’s a huge price to pay.

Conversely, a leader who models balanced decision-making that uses both cognition and intuition grows a staff with deep awareness and capability. This type of decision-making also takes individual practice and persistence.  However, the ROI is significant.  The organization benefits from sound leadership decisions and staff become receptive and capable with the depth to choose well-balanced responses. It cultivates a healthier organization and positions individuals to grow into insightful leaders. When the leader cultivates balanced decision-making patterns, it permeates the organization like a breath of fresh air.

So what about you and your organization? Are you as a leader, developing balanced and insightful decision-making patterns?  Have you looked at the decision-making patterns of your office? As you develop yourself, you feed them.  It’s worth the practice and persistence.

 

Do you want to make more insightful decisions? As you move from management into leadership you face increasingly complex decisions that are filled with ambiguity, uncertainty and risk.  The number of variables to be considered grows from few to many adding complexity.  This is the nature of leadership decision-making.

Successful leaders call on vast information resources to make decisions.  They gather as much information as possible within time constraints and they pay attention to their intuition.  At the decision point, cognition and intuition are balanced through an internal calculus appropriate for the situation. This balance point is what I call infotuition™.   Below is a graphical depiction.

cog int continuum

 

simple complex table

In 1996, Kenneth Hammond put forward a similar theory that he called the Cognitive Continuum Theory.  Spinoza, in the 1600s, predated Hammond by several centuries when he said, “Intellect brings the observer to the point where intuition must occur.” With the advent of the scientific method, intuition fell out of fashion as increasing value was placed on rational thought. Today, due in part to advances in neuroscience, the wisdom available through intuition is coming back to the fore.

Personal interviews with over 70 leaders from the public, private, academic, nonprofit and political sectors on the role of intuition in leadership led to the following decision-making framework. The InfotuitionCognition-Intuition Balance Model arrays the continuum of cognition and intuition with the number of variables in the decision. Within that framework, four types of decision-making approaches are identified. Let’s look briefly at each type.cog int balance model

As expected, simple decisions can comfortably be made using predominantly cognitive processing, hence, they are no-brainers. Leaders frequently delegate these decisions as they are more easily quantified or bounded by policy and procedure.

Decision-making become more difficult as the number of variables exceeds the brain’s cognitive processing capability. If you persist with cognitive processing only you experience over-thinking.  Over-thinking, also known as analysis paralysis, is repetitive mental churning in search of a logical resolution.  Here are a few indicators of over-thinking.

¨ Data and analysis may shut out other intangible considerations

¨ The decision is postponed while seeking more information

¨ The time spent in decision-making exceeds the value of the decision

¨ Nagging feelings are shoved aside to “think it through”

Perhaps, you work with a leader who makes “knee-jerk” decisions or “shoots from the hip.” This type of decision is made without considering all available information.  The truth is that you, too, make knee-jerk decisions.  Knee-jerk decisions come from habits or triggers that cause an emotional reaction rather than an appropriately considered response. There are powerful circuits in the brain that make habits easy. Without self-awareness knee-jerk reactions can lead to inappropriate decisions. These are early-warning signs.

¨ There is quick reaction without hearing available information

¨ You over-react to a situation

¨ There is strong emotion behind the decision

¨ Available information and others’ input are discounted

Before moving on to complex decision-making, let’s look briefly at how to move from unproductive decision-making into balanced decision-making that uses both cognition and intuition.

To move from over-thinking to complex decision-making, think about thinking too much.  It seems, well, counter-intuitive, but you must first recognize the signs of over-thinking. Ask, “Have I considered all available information? What’s the risk of delaying the decision while gathering more data?” Once you acknowledge that you are over-thinking, then you are ready to incorporate more intuition.  Ask, “What’s bothering me about this decision?” Notice the feeling and give it a name. Examine the source of your discomfort.  Give yourself permission to consider your feelings as part of the decision-making process. Try it, make the decision and evaluate the results afterwards.

The key to moving from knee-jerk to complex decision-making is to recognize the early warning signs in your body.  Situations that trigger your reaction will first surface as a bodily sensation – queasy gut, tight chest, clenched jaw. When you recognize the sensation, pause and take a break. Give yourself some space to slow your reaction. Explore your feelings and ask, “Why do I feel so strongly? What’s my motivation?” Once you are calm, incorporate more thinking. “Have I objectively considered everything? Have I heard views from others?” Acknowledge your feelings, incorporate logic and make a more balanced decision.

The most constructive decision-making appropriately balances complexity with cognition and intuition.  The more variables, the less likely that the brain can cognitively reach a sound conclusion.  Fortunately, the brain is designed to integrate disparate information both cognitively and intuitively into an insightful decision – if you let it.

In complex decision-making leaders use techniques to decrease complexity; they notice and validate their feelings; and they use the brain’s natural ability to process vast amounts of information unconsciously to reach a decision using infotuition™.

Leaders have various methods to reduce complexity.

  • The most common is experience.  The more diverse experiences, the more variables leaders can account for.
  • Less discussed but exhibited by the majority of leaders interviewed is selfawareness.  Self-awareness provides underlying principles, values and personal boundaries for the decision.
  • Leaders carefully weigh risk and balance rigor with decision speed.
  • Leaders read and understand people which mitigates some variables.
  • Simplification of the issue helps leaders to strip away variables that are less important and provides more clarity about the desired outcome.
  • Successful leaders are constantly aware of the big picture. They are aware of the environment, situational context and trends.
  • Leaders, of course, consider facts and analysis, as one but not the only variable, and they take into account the source of the analysis.

Complex decision-makers are aware of their feelings. They notice when their body nudges them that something seems amiss. The feeling may cause them to probe further, ask more questions or reconsider their approach.  Their feelings indicate when the timing is right for a decision and which decision to choose. They view feelings as a valid input into the decision-making process.

Finally, they step away.  The part of the brain that is adept at processing large amounts of information works particularly well when given some space and quiet.  Leaders “sleep on it,” exercise, do something to give their brain a break from the decision. Characteristics of complex decisions include:

¨ All facets of the decision both tangible and intangible are assessed

¨ The objective of the decision is separated from extraneous information

¨ Feelings about the decision are recognized and considered

¨ Space is provided for creative processing of cognitive and intuitive inputs

¨ The final decision is grounded in infotuition™

Lastly, complex decision-making can be learned with practice. Due to the plasticity of the brain, the brain can be trained with attention and repetition to notice feelings, develop the capacity to pause when a trigger happens, and to creatively process information.  Leaders say that they learned to trust their intuition. While not infallible, they use it, observe the results and learn for the next time.

Spinoza was right.  With what is known today, it is illogical not to incorporate the power in the brain and body for faster, smarter and more insightful decisions.  Infotuition™ is a business and life skill. You’ve got it. Are you using it?

 

9713565_sAre you in a management or leadership position? Or, perhaps you moved from a specific technical position into a management or a leadership position. If so, you know that the higher you move in an organization, the more you experience increasingly complex decisions.  You have a choice about how to process information and make decisions.

Interviews of more than 70 leaders resulted in a decision-making framework with four types of leadership decision-making styles.  Each of the four are a combination of cognitive and intuitive processing: No-brainer decisions, over-thinking, knee-jerk and complex decisions. We use them all but successful leaders know to navigate between them based on the circumstances, context and feelings.

Screen Shot 2013-12-27 at 1.28.56 PM

 

No-Brainer decisions are highly quantitative, fact-based, have well-defined boundaries, low risk and emotion, or a clear definition of success.  This type of decision may be defined and delegated.  Simple decisions are comfortably be made using predominantly cognitive processing. You are using no-brainer decision-making if:

  • Facts and analysis are the main determinant
  • Rules, laws, processes and procedures are definitive
  • An over-riding principle (like safety) is at stake
  • There is little controversy or emotion
  • The risk is low

Over-thinking is common because we learned to value logical thought to the exclusion of everything else.  You may find yourself force-fitting every decision into a logical mold by rationalizing decisions or creating pro/con lists. Over-thinking is repetitive cognitive processing in search of a logical resolution.  You may feel stuck as you chew on a decision longer than warranted.  You are using over-thinking if:

  • Data and analysis shut out other considerations
  • Processes and procedures are stretched to fit
  • The decision is postponed while seeking more information
  • The time spent in decision-making exceeds the value of the decision
  • Nagging feelings are shoved aside to “think it through”

Knee-jerk decision-makers make decisions without considering all available information. They “shoot from the hip.” Everyone makes knee-jerk decisions occasionally. The challenge is to understand the motivation.  Knee-jerk decisions come from deeply ingrained habits from life professional experience.  They can also be reactions triggered at an emotional level.  You need to know the difference. You are using knee-jerk decision-making if:

  • There is quick reaction without hearing available information
  • You over-react to a situation
  • Your reaction causes later regret about how the decision was handled
  • There is strong emotion behind the decision
  • Available information and others’ input are discounted

Complex decisions involve high degrees of uncertainty and ambiguity. Decisions involving many people with high emotion are complex. These are decisions with no clear definition of success or where conflicting principles are at play.  Periods of rapid change or crisis also breed complexity.  The more complexity, the less likely cognition alone will provide a sound resolution.  Intuitive processing is more effective at combining many variables into an insightful decision that may seem at odds with logic.  You are using complex decision-making if:

  • Perceptions from impacted people are considered
  • The objective of the decision is separated from extraneous information
  • The context of the decision is accounted for
  • Feelings about the decision are acknowledged
  • Your final decision is guided by an informed knowing

Leadership positions embody complex decision-making.  Leaders must embrace both cognition and intuition.  Everyone has both, but not everyone uses both.  Are you?

brain wiring

You’re wired to see what you already believe. It’s a simple statement but the implications for decision-making are complex. What you already believe is built layer upon layer from your experiences which create a filter through which you see the world. Good decision-making relies on understanding how your brain’s filter colors perception and influences interpretation.

The brain is designed to be efficient and make good use of its energy.  The most energy efficient approach is for the brain to take in information around you and make it fit into your personal filter system. It may not be 100% correct, but it is efficient.  Take for example what happened to me last Christmas.

First, a word about my filter. My dad was a band director in the local high school in our small Texas town which was not a hot-bed of culture.  In our household, talk was not of cattle and farm equipment but of music.  I was the only 4th grader in town who could pick out an oboe by sight or sound.  Now fast-forward to last Christmas. I was driving past our local Salvation Army building.  Think about the Salvation Army particularly around the holidays. On this cold morning, there was a sign outside their local headquarters that read, “Bell ringers needed.”

“Wow.” I thought. “I didn’t know the Salvation Army had a bell choir! That sounds like fun.  I wonder when they meet?” I was a mile down the road before my brain began to register, “….Wait a minute. Bell ringers? Salvation Army? Oh….not a bell choir.”   My brain was wired to see what it already believed.

Now take that characteristic of the brain into decision-making.   Your brain is designed to create meaning from what it experiences based on your history. For example, if you interview someone who grew up in an environment similar to yours, your brain will naturally endow them with attributes from your experience which may not reflect their reality. You may also interview someone from a different background or culture. Your brain naturally doesn’t connect with them as easily. It may feel more effortful.

As a leader who makes tough decisions, you must be aware of and vigilant to this natural tendency. If not, you will only hire people you relate to, you can underestimate key trends that your brain doesn’t register, and you may ignore input from staff you if you don’t relate to them.

So how do you counteract your brain’s predisposition to see what you already believe.

  1. Seek out information from those with differing backgrounds. A male leader I interviewed said that he purposefully seeks input from women leaders because they “connect the dots better than men. They see things relationally where I don’t.” He forces his brain to see a situation differently. You can gather input across gender, race, and cultural differences as ways to broaden perspective. Also, talk with those who come from a different career path or different industry. This opens up new habits of thinking.
  2. Challenge your assumptions. Your brain is constantly making assumptions in order to be efficient. Get into the practice of noticing and challenging your assumptions.  This is good practice for your staff, too. Calling out assumptions forces them and you to think more deeply about the connections the brain is making about a situation. How can you make the phrase, “challenge the assumption,” a standard part of discussion?
  3. Force consideration of a different solution. When making a decision, ask yourself what would you do if your preferred approach was not available?  The preferred approach is likely aligned with your brain’s history. Take that option off the table for the sake of discussion and exploration.  Once again, you force the brain to look beyond its own filters for options that it discarded because they don’t fit the pattern.

Your brain is designed to quickly and easily match patterns and create meaning. That serves you well in many cases. In fact, we couldn’t function if we had to reevaluate every situation during the day.  However, leaders and managers need to be aware that their brain is wired to see what it already believes.  For key decisions, take the extra time, use the additional energy and force the brain to look beyond its historical boundaries. Decision-making will improve, and your brain will be broadened for the next time.

12540972_sYou have a secret weapon anytime you face a tough decision. That secret weapon is your value system.  Understanding and aligning with your values are a particularly useful addition to your decision-making toolset.  Your value system indicates if a particular decision is in or out of alignment with values through your feelings.

One thing was clear from my interviews with 77 executives. They are clear on their values and principles. Their values ground their decision-making.  The farther up into leadership positions the fewer boundaries there are and the more complex the decisions. Complex decisions may not have a single correct answer.  There is great latitude and range of choice. Without values, it is hard to chart a course through an open sea of options.  Executives describe using their values or principles to narrow the options. They search for and trust in the decision that is in alignment with their value system – the decision that “just feels right.”  It feels right because it is in sync with their experience and with their deeply held beliefs.

Executives also point out the importance of having a personal value system that aligns with the company culture.  That value system alignment enables faster decision-making because feelings can be trusted. When the decision makes sense and feels right, they find that it is usually the best solution for them and the company. However, for some executives, their personal value system may not entirely align with the company.  I saw this, for example, with an executive who had a long history of public sector service but now works at a private company. He found decision-making to be more challenging due to fundamentally different motivations. His public service decisions were highly motivated by a sense of public good whereas his private company was driven by a profit motive.  (Note: Many companies I work with have a strong sense of public service. I find that the stereotype of public and private motivations to be overly simplistic.) In situations where value systems did not align, this executive had to think more about his decision to ensure that his natural inclination yielded an appropriate decision for the company.

And, what about you? Do you know your values? Do you know the principles that guide your decision-making? Try this simple exercise.  Answer the following question as quickly as possible. Don’t think about it!  Ready?….

If I were a car part, I’d be a _________.

What did you come up with?  Steering wheel, tire, carburetor, hood ornament?  Now ask yourself, “Why did that car part come to mind?”  For example, I picked steering wheel because I like to be in control.  In my programs, I’ve heard motor because I make things go; tire because I put the rubber to the road with practical actions; interior light because I like to see inside the situation.  Whatever it is for you, this simple exercise reveals something about you and your value system. It’s worth the effort to more fully understand your values because they are a key influence on your decisions.  If you are interested in learning more, there is a chapter and exercise on values in my book, Think Less, Live More: Lessons from a Recovering Over-Thinker.

The next time you face a tough decision and judgment call, pause and pay attention to your feelings because they are driven by values. Consider the insights they bring and put them to work to create more effective decision-making.

 

 

35216966 - business communication conflict concept

You are in a meeting with a group of people trying to discuss a project, program, course of action, you-name-it. But it isn’t really a conversation. It’s more like competitive talking.  One person starts a thought only to have their sentence stepped on by another.  Interruptions occur one after the other. Some are more competitive than others and dominate–or take over–the conversation.  Those who don’t want to compete for a piece of discussion real estate sit quietly denying the group of their insight.

When you need to make good decisions, hear input from a range of sources, and balance competing demands, competitive talking is unhelpful and even destructive.  And…it is rampant. What can you do to convert competitive talking into collaboration talking where all are heard and get their ideas on the table?

First, let’s consider your tendency. You are probably a Interrupter or a Waiter.  Interrupters are comfortable jumping into the fray; interrupting others; and making their point. There is some research suggesting that men more so than women are Interrupters and people in power are more likely to be Interrupters.

Waiters, on the other hand, are those who sit quietly waiting for an opportunity to make their point.  They consider interrupting to be rude behavior.  When they are interrupted, they quickly cede the floor. Again, there is some indication that women are more likely to be interrupted (by men and other women.)

Neither Interrupters nor Waiters are contributing to productive decision-making. Both are responsible for changing competition into collaboration. Which one are you?

Interrupters. If you notice that you are talking more than others in the meeting; you are comfortable leaping into discussion; you express your opinion when it pops into your head, then you are likely an interrupter.

  • You aren’t helping the organization. Sure, you have good ideas and those ideas need to be heard.  Yes, you have good questions that need to be ask, but so do others. Recognize that you are part of the problem and change it.
  • Speak and stop. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that you should stop offering your opinion. I am suggesting that you offer it concisely and stop. Just. Stop. Or ask your question and stop.  Listen–really listen–for the answer.
  • Create space for others. You have a useful skill. You are comfortable jumping into a conversation. Not everyone is able to do that.  Practice noticing others in the meeting. Who is trying to speak up but can’t quite get a word in? Help them out.  Speak up and turn the floor over to them.  It sounds like this, “I think John has been trying to say something. John, what do you think?”  Or, “Alicia, you look like you want to jump in.  Please do. “ Or, “A few of us have been dominating the conversation. I’d like to hear from those who haven’t had the opportunity.” When you use your skill to create space for others, everyone wins.  The organization gets more ideas and better decisions, others learn to speak up and you are seen as a collaborator.

Waiters. You know if you are a waiter. You probably view interruption as rude behavior and you are loath to participate in it.  You may leave a meeting feeling frustrated because the same few dominated and others were left out. It feels unfair.

  • You aren’t helping the organization. It’s hard to interrupt when it goes against your grain, but unless you do, the organization misses your input and the wisdom that you bring from your perspective and experience. You need to get your voice in the room.
  • Dive in. Push yourself out of the comfort zone and interrupt. Once you do, keep talking until you get the floor. Make your point with calm composure.
  • Hold your ground. If someone starts to interrupt you before you finish your thought, have a plan. You can hold up a hand in a stop motion; hold up a hand with an upward pointing index finger (note–index finger) signaling that you need one more moment; you can say, “Just a moment, I’m not finished.”

Competitive talking is a habit that needs to be broken or at least moderated.  It takes concerted effort by both interrupters and waiters. The quality of your decisions depends on learning collaborative talking.  Now, what was that you were saying?

 

FilterYou’re wired to see what you already believe. It’s a simple statement but the implications for decision-making are complex. What you already believe is built layer upon layer from your experiences which create a filter through which you see the world. Good decision-making relies on understanding how your brain’s filter colors perception and influences interpretation.

The brain is designed to be efficient and make good use of its energy.  The most energy efficient approach is for the brain to take in information around you and make it fit into your personal filter system. It may not be 100% correct, but it is efficient.  Take for example what happened to me last Christmas.

First, a word about my filter. My dad was a band director in the local high school in our small Texas town which was not a hot-bed of culture.  In our household, talk was not of cattle and farm equipment but of music.  I was the only 4th grader in town who could pick out an oboe by sight or sound.  Now fast-forward to last Christmas. I was driving past our local Salvation Army building.  Think about the Salvation Army particularly around the holidays. On this cold morning, there was a sign outside their local headquarters that read, “Bell ringers needed.”

“Wow.” I thought. “I didn’t know the Salvation Army had a bell choir! That sounds like fun.  I wonder when they meet?” I was a mile down the road before my brain began to register, “….Wait a minute. Bell ringers? Salvation Army? Oh….not a bell choir.”   My brain was wired to see what it already believed.

Now take that characteristic of the brain into decision-making.   Your brain is designed to create meaning from what it experiences based on your history. For example, if you interview someone who grew up in an environment similar to yours, your brain will naturally endow them with attributes from your experience which may not reflect their reality. You may also interview someone from a different background or culture. Your brain naturally doesn’t connect with them as easily. It may feel more effortful.

As a leader who makes tough decisions, you must be aware of and vigilant to this natural tendency. If not, you will only hire people you relate to, you can underestimate key trends that your brain doesn’t register, and you may ignore input from staff you if you don’t relate to them.

So how do you counteract your brain’s predisposition to see what you already believe.

  1. Seek out information from those with differing backgrounds. A male leader I interviewed said that he purposefully seeks input from women leaders because they “connect the dots better than men. They see things relationally where I don’t.” He forces his brain to see a situation differently. You can gather input across gender, race, and cultural differences as ways to broaden perspective. Also, talk with those who come from a different career path or different industry. This opens up new habits of thinking.
  2. Challenge your assumptions. Your brain is constantly making assumptions in order to be efficient. Get into the practice of noticing and challenging your assumptions.  This is good practice for your staff, too. Calling out assumptions forces them and you to think more deeply about the connections the brain is making about a situation. How can you make the phrase, “challenge the assumption,” a standard part of discussion?
  3. Force consideration of a different solution. When making a decision, ask yourself what would you do if your preferred approach was not available?  The preferred approach is likely aligned with your brain’s history. Take that option off the table for the sake of discussion and exploration.  Once again, you force the brain to look beyond its own filters for options that it discarded because they don’t fit the pattern.

Your brain is designed to quickly and easily match patterns and create meaning. That serves you well in many cases. In fact, we couldn’t function if we had to reevaluate every situation during the day.  However, leaders and managers need to be aware that their brain is wired to see what it already believes.  For key decisions, take the extra time, use the additional energy and force the brain to look beyond its historical boundaries. Decision-making will improve, and your brain will be broadened for the next time.

DanubeOnce upon a time, we sat together on our piano bench listening to a recording of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. The music floated along – pretty, but unremarkable to my school-girl ears. My dad, a school band director, explained to me that the music represented the Danube River in Europe. He pulled out a worn volume of the encyclopedia Britannica and found a map showing the Danube cutting through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (at that time) and more. The far-away places seemed exotic and the music more interesting. Something clicked in my brain. Strauss was writing about a real place. “Someday, maybe I will see those places,” I thought to myself.

Fast forward 40+ years. My husband and I are in Vienna, Austria and planning a day-trip to Bratislava. We have two choices: travel by bus or by boat. The bus was cheaper and faster which made the decision obvious. However, the boat ride was along the Danube. Ahhh….now music played in my head; my dad was telling me about the waltz; and my love of new travel experiences kicked in. We took the boat.

Bus versus boat was a small, low-risk decision – but still a decision. The dynamic that played out in this decision also plays out in bigger decisions. Like the three beats in a waltz, three factors, story, purpose and information, dance together in the decision-making process. Let’s look at each and how you can apply them for decision-making.

Information: We collected the information we needed for our travel decision. The boat was three times more expensive than the bus and took 20 minutes longer. Both had convenient departure locations. That was the basic information we needed.

Now consider a decision you face. What information do you need and what can you get within the timeframe available? This is likely the easiest part of the decision-making process. Facts, logic and rational thought are necessary for sound decision-making. Gather up all the relevant information that is reasonably possible. Factual information connects in the newest part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. This is where the executive control function resides that integrates information for decision-making. The language comprehension center is also activated. And that’s about it. Notice that factual information is heady and sterile.

Some decisions can appropriately be made with facts alone; however, as humans, there are likely to be other motivators. In our case, the boat trip was not the most practical or economical decision but the decision derived from its connection to story and purpose. So many times we try to make decisions only based on the facts and we disregard the power of feelings in decision-making. Don’t get me wrong, the facts are essential, but we lose effectiveness when that’s the only thing we consider.

Story: From the moment we learned there was an option to travel along the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava, I thought of my dad and the music. I remembered how he taught me to listen for the slight hesitation after the downbeat before the ba-ba of the waltz. My brain sent a cascade of good feelings. Why is that?

The brain is designed to connect with stories. We make a mistake if we believe that a decision will be made by fact alone. Far better to recognize the power of a story that is activated in your brain. Consider the research behind stories and the brain. Whereas facts activate a couple of brain regions, stories activate up to seven areas in the brain, depending on the nature of the story. These areas might include movement, scent, touch, language, sound, colors and shapes. The Danube memory activated movement, language, sound, and color (blue) at a minimum. Stories, particularly those with multiple dimensions capture the attention of the brain and they are more easily remembered than straight facts.

Test it out yourself. The chances are good that you can recall the backstory about someone or a situation more easily that that statistics. Perhaps you know your boss is an amateur photographer because of a story she shared about photographing her kid’s soccer match. You are more likely to remember this tidbit because of the story. The story connects your boss with you. Maybe you have kids or played soccer or like photography. The story brings up images of soccer fields, the smell of grass, the feel of sun and the joy of kids at play. Stories are more memorable.

Research indicates that people accept ideas more readily when in story mode than in fact mode. Stories captivate the listener (or reader), connect at an emotional level, and transport you across the narrative. Consider a 2007 study by Vanderbilt researcher, Jennifer Edson Escalas, who found that people responded more positively to advertisements in story form than in straightforward fact form. Additionally, if the listener/reader is familiar with or relates to the story, they feel connected and more inclined toward empathy. Connection has been shown to activate the reward center in the brain, which promotes good feeling. Many of us are more inclined toward a decision that feels good than one that feels bad.

When I worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation, we had a significant project that needed a decision from the Secretary. Before the briefing, those who knew him best told me, “Just tell him a story.” We did. We told a story about transportation safety, the number of people killed each year, and opportunity technology held to save lives. We backed the story up with facts and analysis but we led with the story.

Purpose: My dad frequently told me stories about foreign lands. He captivated my imagination and instilled a desire for new and different experiences which became part of my value system. Never having seen the Danube, the opportunity to boat down it resonated with an important part of my life.

It’s not just me. In interviews with leaders, most expressed the important role their value system plays in decision-making. People instinctually resonate with decisions in sync with the values, principles or purpose that make them tick. It’s what Simon Sinek calls your “why.” For the Secretary, safety was a major initiative for his administration and, more importantly, a topic he cared personally about. It was part of his purpose. Our project connected with the stated strategic plan for the Department and it connected to his personal motivator.

As you consider your next big decision why do you care about the decision? What makes you interested in the issue? What gets you excited about the decision? Keep asking “why” until you sense where it links up with your values. That’s when you find a key motivator behind the decision. If you must persuade a decision-maker, ask yourself why they care? How can you connect the decision with a core motivator for them? If you don’t know what motivates them, ask around and see what you uncover.

The next time you face a decision, don’t stop with information alone. Facts are rarely sufficient by themselves. Consider the dance between information, story and purpose. Notice the senses that activate in your brain from stories behind the decision. Take time to understand how the decision connects with your purpose.
Information, story and purpose flow together at the moment of decision just like the three beats in the Blue Danube Waltz.

 

i.www.slideshare.net/ethos3/the-neuroscience-of-storytelling-for-presentations
ii.Hsu, Jeremy, The Secrets of Storytelling, Scientific American, August/September 2008.