There is a very real and important distinction between how people make important, strategic decisions both in life and business. On the one hand, there are those who reach decisions very quickly, and then there are those who reach decisions after significant pondering. At the same time, we can also make a different but not unrelated distinction between those who are extremely confident in their decisions (whether made fast or slowly) and those who are uncertain about their decisions. For the most part, if you ask 5 different experts to say which of these 4 potential decision-making styles is most likely to yield the right solution, you will get five different responses. Well, now there is actual research to help us figure out which styles works best.
A few months back I wrote an article about the Dunning-Kruger Effect — the documented phenomenon in which the least knowledgeable people are the most confident about their own knowledge. Well, this research gives us a variant on Dunning-Kruger – only one that applies to people who are actually knowledgeable.
If we consider the four different styles of strategic decision-making –slow and pondering and confident and uncertain –it’s easy to make some assumptions about who is most likely to get the best answer. But our intuitions about this turn out to be incorrect. In our culture we tend to see speed and confidence as indicators of leadership. Therefore, when someone comes to a strategic decision quickly and are overtly confident in their proposed solution, they gain followers and converts to their proposed solution. We see this in all walks of life. Decisiveness and confidence is a convincing stance – but it is not necessarily a sign that the right decision is looming, even though it is so compelling.
When researchers provided subjects with actual problems to solve, they found two things: The decision makers who took time to collect data, to think and to compare possible outcomes, had better results and better proposed solutions. But the more overwhelming finding had to do with the confidence of the strategists after they had a proposed solution. The least confident strategists had the best solutions. That seems to fly in the face of everything we innately respect in our leaders.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the confidence scale from greatest uncertainty to most confidence also seems to break along sex lines. Women who are charged with strategic decision-making edge toward the lower confidence range, while men usually exhibit greater confidence in their proposed solutions. In other words, if we take 10 decision-makers of both sexes and charge them with proposing a solution to a complex and challenging business problem, both women and men will include fast and ponderous decision-makers. But the women will largely say that they are uncertain about their solution while the men will say that they are very confident in theirs. It turns out though, that in a statistically significant number of cases, the less certain the strategist, the more likely they are to be right and to have conceived the best course of action.
Part of the reasoning behind this seems to be related to the fact that once we feel confident and as though we have solved a problem, we stop being open to alternative solutions, or even new information. The researchers suggest it is analogous to finding one’s keys. Once you have your keys in your hand, you stop looking for them. That makes perfect sense when the resolution is binary: that is, either you have your keys or you don’t know where they are. But strategic decisions are not binary, they are not like finding your keys. Yet our brains treat the sense of a resolution, a finale, the same way.
In contrast, the decision-makers who have less certainty continue to look for solutions, remain open to new information and are able to continue to modify their thoughts and ideas. The very phenomenon of being uncertain creates a greater opportunity to gain further insight and come up with better solutions.
For those of us making strategic decisions this research can give us some guidance about how not to be hoist on the petard of our own over-confidence.
- Take time to collect information and to listen to contrasting points of view. The speed of decisions is a determinant in the research finding. It may also impact your confidence. By slowing down your process you both gain more data and have more time for ideation — and you may also resist the over-confidence that comes with believing you have the answer.
- Resist the urge to close down a project. Maintain the conversation by keeping the strategic team in conversation. If you can keep the conversation active you can also keep the psychological consideration active, and allow for new information or new creativity to emerge.
- Pay attention to your words. Voicing certainty out loud has an effect on your feeling of certainty and confidence. Instead, use less certain language even if it feels “inauthentic”. Our own internal neurological wiring responds to what we say. By speaking with less certainty we create doubt. In the case of strategy, doubt is important and desirable because it keeps us “looking for our keys”.
Much of this will seem like anathema to our over-confidence addiction. But learning to have less certainty and more of a sense of wonder is a great tool for enhancing your strategic work – and it applies to other problem-solving moments in life. Just try it and see if you come up with better solutions!
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