When we think of what makes someone a great leader, one characteristic that comes to mind is decisiveness. We do not envision successful leaders standing around appearing unclear and uncertain. Instead, we view them as people who are able to quickly arrive at their decisions and communicate the goals to others.
Leaders often have to make challenging decisions, such as what direction to move their company in; whether to keep an employee, reposition them or let them go; whether or not to share “bad news” with stockholders, and many other such challenges.
Great leaders understand how to balance emotion with reason and make decisions that positively impact themselves, their employees, their customers and stakeholders, and their organizations. Making good decisions in difficult situations is no small feat because these types of decisions involve change, uncertainty, anxiety, stress, and sometimes the unfavorable reactions of others.
Great leaders also know when to move quickly and proceed with the available information, versus when to take more time and gather additional information. When leaders opt to pursue additional information or avenues, they must also know when to stop. While a large amount of data may be desirable in a perfect world, the data gathering process can utilize too much time, and the vast amount of data can also be paralyzing and take attention away from the big picture or key data points.
This article will explore three crucial qualities that great leaders must develop to become great decision-makers: emotional intelligence, the ability to handle uncertainty, and the ability to weigh evidence with intuition. The article concludes with a step-by-step process employing these characteristics to arrive at the best possible decision given the many variables that can and will come into play.
Emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage your emotions and those of others, is one of the most important qualities a leader must possess. According to the authors of Primal Leadership, a leader’s emotions are contagious. This is why resonant leadership is so important—a leader’s mood will resonate with others and set the tone for the emotional climate in an organization.
Emotional intelligence consists of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Self-awareness is the foundation for all aspects of emotional intelligence. It involves being able to accurately assess yourself. Before you can change, you must be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Self-management entails the ability to understand and control your emotions, adapt to change, and adopt an optimistic outlook. Social awareness is similar to self-awareness but the focus is external and involves understanding the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others, as well as how to relate to other people. Relationship management is crucial for great leadership and includes qualities such as being influential and inspirational and developing others.
Here we will focus on one of the core components of self-management: emotional self-control. When you have developed this skill, you will recognize your emotions, be influenced by them, but not blinded by them, and be able to calmly and clearly express your decisions to others even when you experience intense emotions within yourself and from others.
Emotional Self-Control and Decision Making
Imagine that you were presented with a critical high-stakes situation with a significant potential downside and you needed to make a decision and take action right away. You would likely have a significant emotional reaction, including feelings such as anxiety, fear, or anger. Unfortunately emotions such as these cloud our ability to make good decisions. When we get into the emotional part of our brain, our innate reaction is to protect ourselves. We get an adrenaline rush or flight-or-fight response, and short-term survival is the immediate goal. As you can imagine, being in this state is not particularly conducive to making strategic, long-term decisions. This is why emotional self-control is so important. Great leaders are aware of their emotional state and are able to manage intense emotions so they can make smart decisions.
Reigning in Emotions for Strategic Decisions
In order to make strategic, long-term decisions, we must know how to bring down the intense emotional reaction so that we can engage a different part of our brains (the prefrontal cortex), which is responsible for looking at the big picture and long-term planning. Paradoxically, the way to do this is to accept and allow whatever emotional reaction we are having and choose to focus on the facts as much as possible.
Trying not to experience an emotion is like trying to pull a rollercoaster backwards as it heads down the hill. It takes a lot of effort, which ultimately backfires and we feel worse. Instead, simply jump on board and ride it out. The intensity of the emotions will quickly pass and then you can think logically. The goal, however, is not to take feelings out of the decision-making process. It is simply to keep them from taking over and losing emotional self-control.
Managing Uncertainty and Choices
Why is it so difficult to make decisions? Perhaps it is because the variables and the outcomes are often uncertain. We do not like uncertainty. Uncertainty creates discomfort and analysis paralysis. We try to analyze the situation from every angle to alleviate the sense of uncertainty. These efforts are often futile and waste valuable time and energy because so often we must make decisions in the face of uncertainty.
The Lengths We Go to Avoid Uncertainty
In a 1992 study conducted by cognitive scientists Amos Tversky and Eldar Shafir, college students were asked whether they would purchase a great deal on a trip to Hawaii over their holiday break. They were told that they would receive the grade on their most important exam before they had to decide. Of those who were told that they passed the exam, 57 percent said they’d go for the trip. Interestingly, a similar percentage (54 percent) of those who were told that they failed also said they’d go.
When researchers designed uncertainty into the mix, results changed dramatically. Students were told that they would not receive the exam grade for two days and that they could buy the trip now, pass on it now, or pay $5 to wait for two days until they received their grade. The majority of students (61 percent) said that they would wait. The first part of the study showed that students for the most part wanted to go if they passed or if they failed the exam, but here they were willing to pay to wait and find out their grade.
This study shows the lengths that we will go to avoid uncertainty. Students seemed to think that knowing their grade would help them make a good decision when in reality it would not make a difference in their decisions.
We are often paralyzed by uncertainty and end up basing our decisions on things that aren’t even related. Question your attempts to find certainty before making decisions because you may be seeking a false sense of security. Much like the aforementioned method to reign in negative emotions to achieve emotional self-control, acceptance is a crucial starting place. If we are able to accept the uncertainty rather than try to resolve it, we can focus our limited time, energy, and money on making the best decisions in the face of an uncertain outcome.
This does not mean that you should not bother to analyze a situation before making a decision. Various analyses can be helpful in providing the information necessary to make the best decisions in the situation. The key is to know when what you don’t know is important, and if so, how to go about gathering the necessary information to resolve the uncertainty. If what you don’t know is not important, then the next step is to accept the uncertainty and proceed in spite of it.
If, however, you find yourself getting stuck or investing too much time or other resources in the analyses, ask yourself if the uncertainty that you are attempting to resolve is truly resolveable. If not, it would be best to accept the uncertainty and move on.
Limit Your Choices
One of the decision-making mistakes we commonly make is to give ourselves a lot of options. We figure that if we consider every possible alternative, we will have better choices and make the best decision. Sometimes we do this exhaustive search as a way to resolve uncertainty. We assume that if we go through everything, no stone will be left unturned and there will be no uncertainty. The problem is that we are likely to get overwhelmed and make no decision.
In 2000, Sheena Iyengar of Columbia Business School and Mark Lepper, chairman of Stanford’s psychology department, conducted a study in which two tasting displays of gourmet jams were set up in an upscale supermarket. They had 24 jams set up for tasting in one display, and just six jams in the other. They found that more people were attracted to the table with 24, an equal number tasted at both tables, and a huge difference in purchasing resulted: only 3 percent of those who had tasted at the table with 24 jams bought a jar, whereas 30 percent of those who had tasted at the table with six jams bought a jar.
This study and various others like it show that when there are more than five or six options, people have a more difficult time deciding and often opt not to make a decision. To help yourself and others effectively and efficiently make decisions, limit your options. Keep options fewer than five and you will find it much easier to make a decision.
Trusting Your Intuition
Excellent leaders often say that they go with their gut to make decisions. They are able to trust themselves and their expertise and not get stuck in the cycle of over-thinking. The more you know about a subject, the more reliable your intuition will be. Make yourself an expert in your field and your intuition will be your best guide.
Intuition Leads to Satisfaction with Decisions
Participants in a study conducted by Timothy D. Wilson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia and the University of Pittsburgh were asked to choose a piece of art to hang in their homes. Half of them were asked to think rationally about their choice, and the other half were instructed to go with their gut. Those who went with their feelings rather than their analysis were happier with their selection. We can rationalize our way into anything, but our first impressions often tell us how we really feel.
How to Hear Your Intuition
You may have heard intuition described as a nagging little voice inside you. It typically speaks softly rather than screaming out at you. Unfortunately in our non-stop, busy, technology-filled worlds, it can be easy to not hear our intuition. It is always speaking, but we are often not listening.
Hone your skills at listening to your intuition by building some form of meditative practice into your daily life. It doesn’t have to be actual meditation; it can be a few moments of reflection, a warm bath, a walk with your dog, and so on. We are typically so bombarded with information all day (television, radio, Internet, cell phone, Blackberry…) that we miss out on opportunities to notice ourselves thinking and feeling. To hear your intuition you must have some time when you’re a human being, not a human doing. Build periods of quiet into your life and you will be surprised at what you hear.
Decide Your Way to Great Decisions
Great decision making takes practice. As you now know, this process requires a certain level of comfort with discomfort. We could play it safe and defer important decisions to others, spend hours and hours analyzing and agonizing over every option, or we could accept the level of risk and go for it. Many people are afraid of making a bad decision or the wrong decision. We can only do our best with the information we have available to us at the time. There is typically not a right or a wrong answer. In the worst-case scenario, however, you select the wrong option. Even if you choose an option that reveals itself to be inferior in the short-term, you will learn that you can handle the outcome and make the best of it. You may even find unexpected opportunities by going down the “wrong” path.
Practice this process using the following steps:
- Decide whether to take action quickly or gather additional information. If you decide to gather additional information, create parameters to determine what information is essential and when to cease your information-gathering process.
- Be aware of the emotions that come up as you proceed with your decision. Accept the emotions and allow them to guide you without controlling you.
- Recognize the uncertainty elements in the situation and decide how much of the uncertainty needs resolution. Know that most situations cannot be calculated with complete certainty and, even though it may be uncomfortable, it is often necessary to accept the uncertainty and proceed.
- Allow yourself to hear your intuition. Do not over-think important decisions because you may talk yourself into something that goes against your instincts and experience.
- Seek out opportunities to thoughtfully and proactively make challenging decisions. Recognize that even “negative” outcomes may be better than you expect, and gain confidence in your ability to make great decisions.
Be a leader in your personal life and career by committing to make difficult decisions in a timely manner. The best way you can inspire others to change is by making changes yourself. Practice this process and become a confident leader of yourself and others. Just think of all of the time and energy you will save in the process, and how great you will feel as you remain calm, trust yourself, and make great decisions.
 Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership,(Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004).
 Daniel H. Barlow, Anxiety and Its Disorders, Second Edition: The Nature and Treatment of Anxiety and Panic, (New York: The Guilford Press, 2004).
 Amos Tversky and Eldar Shafir, “The Disjunction Effect in Choice under Uncertainty,” Psychological Science, 3 (1992): 205–209.
 Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79 (2000): 995–1106.
 Timothy D. Wilson et al., “Introspecting about Reasons Can Reduce Post-Choice Satisfaction,” Personality and SocialPsychology Bulletin, 19 (1993): 331–339.
Larina Kase, PsyD, MBA, is a professional speaker, author, and recognized expert in peak performance, anxiety and stress management, leadership, and entrepreneurship. Kase holds a doctorate in psychology and master’s in business administration, and her unique approach has been featured in magazines such as Inc., Entrepreneur, and SELF, and on national TV and radio. She has coached executives from companies such as Verizon, Intel, Morgan Stanley, and Ernst & Young. The author or coauthor of seven books including The New York Times bestseller, The Confident Speaker, her latest book, The Confident Leader, is about how to utilize emotional intelligence, anxiety and energy management, and inspirational leadership to confidently make difficult decisions and address key challenges.
Decisiveness is an essential aspect of manliness. No soldier wants to be under the command of an officer who stands flat-footed in the midst of crisis. No woman desires a beau who cannot decide what he wants in a relationship. No boss appreciates an employee who cannot make decisions on the fly. And no person respects the man who orders a burger and then spends the rest of the night talking about how he should have gotten fajitas.
The man the ladies want, the corporation promotes, and the world respects is the decisive man. The decisive man is calm and cool under pressure; he’s a take charge kind of guy; he has purpose and direction; he is the man with the plan. The indecisive man makes little or excruciatingly slow progress in his life because he is always standing shilly shally, unable to decide which way to go. He’s stuck in neutral while the decisive man cruises ahead toward his goals and his happiness.
The indecisive man is also the restless man. He labors under the delusion that not making a decision will allow him to remain safe in his current position. Yet he fails to understand that life is like standing in the midst of a river in which we are continually fighting the current. If you cease to paddle, you will simply be swept downstream. It is not possible to stand still. Instead of feeling in control, you will feel as though life is happening to you. If you try to live in the middle of your decisions, these unmade choices will subconsciously clutter up your brain, cause you to regress, and make you feel quite anxious.
A man doesn’t simply float along in life. He seizes the reigns and plots his course. He is the captain of his destiny.
Of course just making decisions isn’t enough. After all, the man who makes all poor decisions isn’t very successful or popular either. A man needs to be both skilled in decision making and in making the right decisions at the right time.
How to Make a Good Decision
We all have to make decisions every day, some easy-what shirt to wear-some excruciatingly difficult-what college should I go to? When we have a tough decision to make, we often put off making the choice as long as possible. We know that as soon as we step through one door, the other door will close, and we’ll never get to know what was behind it. That’s a frightening thing. But there are steps you can take to ameliorate your anxiety as you make a decision.
Get as much information as possible. Whenever you’re faced with a big decision, this is the first step you should always take. Don’t just sit and stew about it day after day, waiting somehow for the stars to align and for the answer to come to you. Instead, find out as much information as possible about all of the options you have before you. If you’re trying to choose a college, go visit the campus, read a college guidebook, talk to students that go there, etc. If you’re trying to choose what job offer to take, research as much as you can about your prospective employers. Talk to people in your field that have an outsider’s perspective on the firms. Read, go online, talk to people close to you for advice. In the midst of your research, you may have an “ah-ha” moment where the best choice becomes clear. If not, move on to the next step.
Make a list of pros and cons. This is an old standby method that can be really helpful at times. Just take a piece of paper, make some columns and list the pros and cons of each potential decision. The pro column for one might be much longer than the others. Even if it’s not that obvious, the process of really thinking through the positives and negatives can lead to your “a-ha” moment.
Imagine yourself down each road. Sometimes when we’re making a choice, we only imagine the results of that decision in the abstract. But this is going to be your life. So sit or lay down somewhere quiet and really try to imagine your life after making each of your possible choices. Think about what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. Which scenario gives you feel a sense of peace? Which one makes you happy just thinking about it? And which one leaves you feeling a little empty?
Think about past decisions. It’s often been said that those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it. This is as true for the world as it is for our personal lives. Sometimes we make the same screwy decisions over and over again.
Think about the bad decisions you made in the past; is there a common denominator? Did you bail out on what you’re really passionate about because you thought you wanted prestige, only to wish you had followed your dream? Then don’t make another decision based on your pride. Have you made bad choices based simply on your insecurity? Make sure that’s not behind the way you’re leaning now.
Making on the Fly Decisions
Of course you don’t always have time to sit down and study things out. Sometimes you have to make decisions on the fly. It’s harder to always make the right choice when you’re under pressure, but there are a couple of things you can do to bring that percentage up.
Be prepared. Have you ever watched a football game in which there is but seconds to go and it’s fourth down for the team that is but one touchdown behind? The pressure is on and the crowd of 80,000 spectators is going nuts. The ball is snapped and the quarterback zips a sweet pass to the receiver in the end zone, winning the game. The fan is apt to sit back and think, “Wow, that kids thinks well on his feet.” And maybe he does, but he knew what to do long before that high-pressure fourth down. His coach had presented him with a few plays that should be run in that situation. And he endlessly practiced them until he had them down cold. So when the time came, he could shut out the crowd and the stress and simply follow through with the plan.
You obviously can’t know exactly what choices you’ll be faced with in your life. But you can prepare as best as possible for what to do in a variety of situations. At work, keep up on the details of the deals that are coming down the line and the pros and cons of each. With your relationships, think about where you want things to go and hypothetically work through what you would say if your girlfriend asks you for a greater commitment. Learn valuable skills that will come in handy in case of an emergency. Practice the skills that are important in your life so that if you’re suddenly faced with a big decision, you won’t have to think about it much; your training will just kick in automatically.
Go with your gut. Several scientific studies have shown that a correct gut feeling can hit us before our brains can even rationally process what is going on. In a recent article in the New York Times about the hunches soldiers get that help them avoid danger, Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, said:
“Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings — feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it. Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.”
So trust your gut. But make sure it’s an informed gut. The article also pointed out that the most accurate hunches came to the soldiers with the most experience and training. So do your research and if both choices seem equally good, go with your gut.
Also, while listening to your gut seems simple, it’s actually something you can get better at with practice. We’re often so busy and stressed, that our hunch signals can’t even get through. You have to learn to quiet your mind and hone in on what you inner-compass feels like.
How to Avoid Regret
Of course even a great decision can be wrecked by the disease of regret. It eats at us, and we can’t take our minds off of what might have been behind the other doors. Did we make the right choice? What if we made the wrong choice!?
Regret usually sets in after the honeymoon period of a made decision passes. You take a new job and then after a few weeks you have a soul-crushing day, and your mind can’t help but think about what it would have been like to be in graduate school. You break-up with a woman and then it’s Friday night, and you’re lonely and miss her.
At moments like these, you need manly resolution. You need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Here are some tips on how to avoid looking back once you’ve made a choice:
Consult your journal. You are keeping a journal, aren’t you? They’re essential for moments when regret starts to grip your mind. When you make a decision, write down how you came to that decision and all the reasons you made that decision in your journal. Then, later on when you’re starting to have some doubts, you can look back and remember why you made that choice in the first place. Has anything fundamental changed that should legitimately cause you to reevaluate your decision? If not, just keep letting your past self reassure your present self that you’re on the right track.
Remember, just because something gets hard, doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. If a choice was right to begin with, it’s usually still right when the going gets tough.
Repeat this: Whichever decision you made is the right decision. I heard that advice from a wise old man when I was facing one of the most serious and hard decisions of my life. And it gave me great comfort. No matter which road you choose, there are going to be things you’re grateful for and things you regret. It wouldn’t have been any different if you had made a different choice. So just settle that fact and in your mind and fully own the choice you made.
Are there decisions in your life that you’ve been putting off? Man up and tackle them today!
Next time: How to mathematically deduce the best decision.
Last updated: November 25, 2017