Two-Speed Decision Makers: Frustrating But Effective

By: Jason S. Chaffin

My wife and I recently spent an afternoon at a bathroom showroom in preparation for a massive remodel on our home’s upstairs facilities. For 90 minutes, we debated choices of material and colors for showers, trim, vanities, and so on. I learned what bullnose was.  I discovered a quartz variant called St. Cecilia Fantasy. We literally argued over chrome. Then, at lunch after meeting with the contractor, she asked me, “So, when should we think about another baby?” Unwittingly, she was strategically taking advantage of decision fatigue.

When not discussing faucets and knobs, I spend my time with my colleagues in the business environment focusing on making great leaders better. Periodically, we come across executives who, when it comes to making decisions, have two gears: fast and off. They will often frustrate others by charging ahead capriciously and not building buy-in for the bulk of their rapid-fire choices. However, when failure is a real accepted possibility, these “two-speeders” downshift dramatically.

We may be tempted to coach these folks to be more considerate and to make sure they are gaining input when they’re moving too quickly. We can help them develop more confidence in their ability to make tough calls when they’re being excessively cautious. But what if they’re approaching decisions in a really effective way, and we could learn from them?

We use an industry-standard psychometric tool to identity potential “derailing” tendencies, and these two-speeders are usually flagged as being both potentially cautious and reckless. But this combination can actually be very beneficial, both in corporate and personal settings. Let’s get neuroscience-y for a bit:

For a long time, we psych people have thought about the dichotomy between our lower “lizard brains” and our evolved human brains. Quick, fight-or-flight decisions are the province of the amygdala (the little nugget nestled close to the middle of the brain). This we share with our primate ancestors as well as honey badgers, sharks, and general counsels. Conversely, the prefrontal cortex (about a half-inch behind the forehead) crunches data, ponders future consequences, and makes more considered, rational choices. It prevents us from always living in the moment and making bad decisions. It doesn’t completely form until after our college years. Take a moment and let those last two sentences sink in.

When we’re at work, we put on our professional personas. Maintaining our public face takes effort and willpower, which is actually finite and needs to be replenished. The less willpower we have, the more we will rely on the amygdala to make decisions. Obviously, in many cases letting the amygdala rule can have harmful effects. However, trying to force oneself to be analytical and willful with common decisions can also lead to disastrous results. For example, professional athletes who try to fix a slump by overthinking fundamentals often find themselves digging themselves deeper into a rut. More troublesome, experienced pilots most frequently commit fatal errors when they try to respond to problems by thinking back to their training rather than simply reacting. Especially when one has expertise to draw upon, relying on “gut” can be a better option.

Of course, the real work is knowing when it’s best to make quick, gut decisions, and when it’s better to exhaust some willpower and let that big human prefrontal cortex take control. We should be coaching our clients and colleagues to more effectively triage decisions so that they can expend more mental energy on the things that matter most. We should ask: “Does this drive one of the handful of strategic imperatives? If not, how quickly can I get it off my desk?” The folks who do a good job with this will speed by the small stuff and pump the brakes significantly when they find a decision that requires more thought. They’ll look like two-speeders. But they won’t get so worn down picking out toilet seats and soap holders that they’ll rush into the big decisions. Nice try, honey. We’ll carry on that other discussion later.



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