Why Your Decision-Making Instincts Are Dead Wrong

Last Updated Jul 28, 2011 4:49 PM EDT

Why Your Decision-Making Instincts Are Dead WrongI just had lunch with one of the smartest guys I know - a retired former senior executive of IBM and a few other notable companies. One of his distinguishing characteristics is that he's never sure he's right.

Don't get me wrong. He's very decisive and opinionated. At times he'll think he's right, but one argument - if it's a really good one - can easily change his mind. I'm the same way, which is why we've always worked so well together.

And you know what? That methodology works perfectly in the complex world of modern business and management decision-making. The reason is that, the more certain you are that you're right, the better the chance that you're actually wrong and have forever locked the right answer out of your brain.

There's a brilliant description of why that is by consultant and former executive Ted Cadsby on HBR's blog network. We're apparently wired that way. Here's my version, with apologies to Cadsby if I botched his elegant explanation:

In caveman times, nobody got to live long enough to noodle long and hard on problems. You went with your first decision - typically your gut instinct - and if you were right, you lived. If not, well, let's just say there wasn't much second guessing.

Not only that, but problems were relatively simple back then. If you heard loud growling and snarling, you pretty much put off hunting, laid low in the cave, and found something else to do that day. Probably reproduce or pick tics out of your hair.

So, with only two choices - the quick and the dead - fast decision-making got baked into the gene pool. To this day, we feel really good when we make a decision. I wouldn't be surprised if endorphins, serotonin, or dopamine have something to do with that.

But these days, we live and work in a far more complex world. And we're all required to make decisions based on multiple variables and lots of moving parts without having all the data we'd like to have.

So, when something changes, there's new information, or somebody comes along with a different perspective, we might realize we were wrong and change our minds.

But not if that great feeling we got from making the original decision causes us to lock out other possibilities because, well, because it felt so good being in control with one less thing to stress about. Or maybe it's the neurotransmitters. Or both, who knows?

Whatever the reason, the unknown is scary and stressful because fear and our reaction to it is part of our built-in survival mechanism. Ignoring that means overriding our gut instincts, adrenaline response, limbic system, whatever you want to call it, and kissing that nice calm feeling of control goodbye. And that's pretty hard to do.

Nevertheless, while modern day problems are complex, our neocortex has evolved to deal with them. That means that logical thought can override your emotions.

And what Cadsby and I are telling that highly evolved human brain of yours is that, in the modern business world, it's okay to be decisive, but you're better off keeping an open mind - scary as that is - instead of locking down your decisions - good as that feels.

I never realized it before, but I guess that's what my friend and I do. And that's probably got a lot to do with the success of our careers. Who knew?

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