The Problem With Pledges -- and other Decision-Making Traps

Last Updated Jul 26, 2011 2:58 PM EDT

There is a good reason that pledges are much more prevalent in politics than business. Politicians know that elections are lost when they don't provide clear answers to tough questions. But business leaders know that tough questions often don't come with certain answers.

In politics, there is a pledge for any issue you might believe worthwhile to think about. Pledges against gay marriage and for debt ceilings. Against abortion, tax increases, and cuts to Social Security, and for Pro-Life Leadership, a balanced budget amendment and marriage definitions involving various configurations.

But the problem with pledges, at least to a business leader's view of the world, is that they restrict options, block creative thinking or tie's an organization's course to one route.

"Private sector leaders -- the ones who are able to sustain success over the long term -- know that being willing to ask uncomfortable questions, learn the truth, and avoid pre-ordaining the answers, allows them to stay in business and excel," writes Harvard Business School professor and leadership expert Robert Steven Kaplan. "They know that facing reality can cause them to change their minds, and that they must remain open to doing so."

Even though business executives don't have to deal with pledges, there are plenty of other ways they box themselves in, well known decision-making traps that prevent clear analysis and action, such as:

  • Anchoring. We tend to give greater weight to the first set of information we encounter on the road to a decision. Anchoring is especially prevalent when the decision-maker is under pressure to act fast.
  • Framing. How we perceive a problem colors our decision process. If the glass is half full, thoughtful progress must continue to be made. If half empty, better bear down and get to work immediately.
  • Confirmation bias. We look for information that confirms our preliminary thinking.
  • Bias toward the status-quo. Change is uncomfortable and risky.
All this should serve as a warning for those facing critical decisions. Actions must be made with a clear head, not one hampered by what's gone before (your signature on a pledge, for example), preconceived notions of right and wrong, or unrecognized psychological barriers. And decision-making, at least on difficult choices, should be considered a process, one that takes time and involves gaining multiple perspectives.

How do you clear your head to make decisions? What factors do you consider?

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(Photo by Little-Foot, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.