By Randy Logsdon
Throughout our careers (our lives), we make thousands (if not millions) of decisions. Some are simple and require little thought or consideration. Others are critical not only to our safety, but to our livelihood. Last month I raised the concept of optimism bias and how that bias can color our perception of risk. Actions based on that biased perception, can easily lead to an unacceptably high risk of injury or illness.
The problem is compounded by the fact that optimism bias is so powerful in our judgment process that even when confronted with objective facts to the contrary, our optimism bias tends to supersede objective logic in decision-making situations. Making the right decision just may determine whether someone drives home in a pick-up or is carried to the hospital in an ambulance. So making good decisions is essential to our work and to our lives. Given all that, how do we know if we’ve made the right decision?
It seems like a no-win situation. Are we really destined to proceed through life making poor (even dangerous) decisions? Is there no recourse? Those questions led me to do a bit more research, focusing on a systematic approach to decision-making. While there is an abundance of advice available on the topic of decision-making, I was led to the book entitled Decisive: “How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work”, by Chip and Dan Heath. The authors present a methodical process for defeating what they term the four villains of decision-making. The advice is well-conceived, thoroughly researched and presented in a logical and easily understood format. The following is a brief description of the Heaths’ villains.
Narrow Framing – The tendency to define choices too narrowly. When you find yourself asking “Should I do this or that?” you’re narrowly framing the options. The authors develop a number of methods that can be employed to effectively expand options.
Confirmation Bias – Not to be confused with optimism bias. People have a tendency to seek out or value data that support their pre-existing beliefs. (There are obvious political and commercial applications here.) Even the most sophisticated scientists have difficulty overcoming confirmation bias. Consider the debate over global warming.
Short-Term Emotion – A favorite tool of advertisers. Thumb through any popular magazine or study the objective of most television commercials and you will see that the focus of the product appeal is emotional. Does the satisfaction of your desire to meet a deadline drive your decision? How lasting will the results be? Is a part of your decision based on achieving an emotional goal?
Overconfidence – Optimism bias is in play here. More simply explained, people think they know more than they do about how the future will unfold. The authors cite a study indicating that when doctors were completely certain of a diagnosis they were actually wrong 40 percent of the time.
The authors make another important distinction. Their decision making process is focused on deliberate decisions that are not urgent in nature. They require the collection of data (sometimes from multiple sources) and some analysis possibly involving discussions and collaboration.
There is another type of decision-making – decisions that are reactive and made in an instant. The process that the Heaths’ recommend is not applicable to those situations. This type of decision is no less important. In fact, they may generally be considered more critical. A large rock is tumbling down a catwalk in your direction. The brakes fail on a haul truck heading downhill. An electrical junction box suddenly begins to smoke.
These are reactive decisions that require no scrutiny. The response will be based on learned and/or practiced response methods. That’s not to say that there is not a response system in play. That is a discussion for another time.
Finally, remember that in many situations, the decision is made for us (also know as compliance). Regulations, rules and procedures are ripe with predetermined responses to common situation. Even then, there may be a better (safer) way that extends beyond the narrow framing of compliance. You decide.