In truth, we are always deciding. It may thus be best to think of decision-making as an ongoing process rather like breathing. In much the same way as when we notice we are breathing, there are times when we notice we are making decisions. More often than not, we simply notice the decisions and rarely delve into how those decisions truly got made. What might the ingredients have been?
A major ingredient is clearly past decisions. My contention is that every decision influences the process that gave it life, making the same or similar decisions more likely in the future. In short, every decision is potentially habit-forming or habit-reinforcing.
This means that our neural pathways become increasingly comfortable with and biased towards certain thinking patterns and processes. Hence, the importance of becoming aware of how we are deciding. That awareness gives us power to break from the past and make decisions that better reflect our current needs and desires.
Decision-Making Is Not Just About Logic
There has been a growing tendency, born in the enlightenment and forged in the industrial revolution, to think of the world in mechanistic terms. This worldview assumes that we are all machine-life creatures living in a mechanistic world.
Everything we do can thus be reduced to a series of neat steps that, if followed, will produce optimal results each time. This is born out of a lack of understanding as to the nature of humanity and indeed the nature of the world in which we live.
It is therefore perhaps more helpful to view decision-making theories and models like maps. Whilst maps may help guide you through the territory, they are not the territory.
What Really Goes into the Mix?
Even when we feel a decision is a decision and can be taken in isolation, in truth it is much more complex.
1. No person is truly an individual.
We are born in and are of a particular time and place. This heavily conditions how we think and therefore how we decide. Just imagine being from another country or another era if you doubt this.
2. Humans are social beings.
Group dynamics plus the status and power afforded certain decision-makers heavily influence how we approach decisions. Because of this, decisions are not made in a vacuum. Otherwise, they would have no meaning.
3. We live in a complex world.
Outcomes are influenced by countless variables and are at all times exposed to randomness. No decision-making process can guarantee outcomes.
4. Decision-making is not about speed.
Decisions are sometimes years in the making. I have orchestrated and managed decision-making processes that have lasted years. This was not a bug but rather a feature because time was needed to truly digest the implications of the inevitable decision. Making the decision too early would, as well as being unnecessary, have been much more traumatic.
5. Decision-making is not just a cognitive process.
Despite being viewed as a logic-driven process, decision-making is heavily influenced by emotions and all aspects of our lived experience. Gut feelings are even often acknowledged as a major contributor: “My gut tells me….”.
6. Decisions are influenced by past decisions.
There are a number of factors at play here. Firstly, humans like to be broadly consistent so we may feel that if we create some sort of precedent, we will need to follow it next time. Equally, as mentioned above, decisions are habit-forming, and habits become sticky.
7. Decision-making can be messy.
We have all been in meetings where decisions are made, and it is not immediately clear how we got there. It can be as simple as one person making an emotional plea or a semi-coherent argument that is built upon by a “high status” member of the group. This is often not the right time to intercede but remember that, because of the eternal nature of decision-making processes, many decisions can be made and remade multiple times.
8. The decision-making environment conditions the decisions.
When making decisions, we often do not say what we feel needs to be said or ask what needs to be asked. This is sometimes down to the decision-making environment that is forcing us to make a quick decision, presenting a fait accompli or structured in such a way that we feel we cannot speak as we might.
Changing the Recipe
There are so many possible ingredients and so many different recipes that there is no one-size fits all approach. Recognising that multifaceted nature of decision-making is a key first step towards unleashing our deep decision-making capabilities.
We are then invited to become more conscious of the intricate tapestry of influences weaving through our own choices. Only by understanding the roots of our own decisions, and those of the groups to which we belong, can we truly aspire to craft a future built on choices that better align with our evolving selves, organisations and the ever-changing world around us.
Questions in the Image:
- What goes into my decisions?
- How do past choices influence me now?
- How does my environment shape my decisions?
- Am I using a map or exploring the territory?
Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day.
What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.