“The single most important thing that leaders do is make good judgment calls. With good judgment, little else matters. Without good judgment, nothing else matters.”[i]
So say Warren Bennis and Noel Tichy, in their book Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls. They go on to frame judgment in three major categories: decisions we make about people, strategy, and when facing a crisis. I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’ve yet to find an important judgment I couldn’t put in one of those three buckets. I’m facing one right now that fits in all three.
If these assertions are correct, and I believe they are, one of the highest return on investment growth areas for leaders is learning how to make better decisions. It would be easy to believe good judgment flows exclusively from wisdom, and there is no shortcut, no life hack for that. I agree. But there is a life hack for perspective, and if you apply it consistently there is scientific proof you will make better decisions.
There is a lot of evidence showing that decision making is directly correlated with the loss of cognitive dexterity and willpower. That’s precisely why your brain turns as many routine tasks as possible into habits to conserve energy. Decision fatigue is the psychological label describing the degrading quality of one’s choices over the course of a day.
One study published in the Journal of American Medicine showed that doctors who have been on duty for several hours are more likely to prescribe antibiotics to patients even when it is unwise to do so.
The Paradox of the Other
A counterintuitive finding of a more recent study confirms that decision fatigue does not apply when you are making the decision for another person. Perhaps this is why we are so adept at evaluating the decision making quality of other people. “What was he thinking?”
And here’s where the life hack comes into play. One of the cognitive abilities that separates us from animals is our ability to think outside of ourselves, to imagine you were observing yourself from an outside point of view. Of course, your imagination has limits, and the only way to remove the blind spots is to ask other people for input, or to actually video yourself and watch the footage.
But that doesn’t make your outside-in-imagination useless. “When people imagine themselves as advisers and imagine their own choices as belonging to someone else, they feel less tired and rely less on decision shortcuts to make those choices.”[ii]
Serving as Your Own Coach and Consultant
When you are making an important judgement about people, strategy, or how to respond to a crisis, stop for a moment and step outside yourself by asking the following questions:
If I were an executive coach, working with me in this situation, what questions would I ask?
If I were a consultant, advising me in this situation, what advice would I give?
Decision fatigue pushes us toward risk aversion and status quo choices. And the bigger the decision, the more sensitive the judgment, the more stress we experience at the time we need to pull the trigger. All this works against us as these factors negatively impact decision quality.
You are Smarter Than You Think
Nothing will replace prayer, wise counselors, and a good night’s sleep. But you can add this simple but powerful life hack to your decision making framework. I’ve used this mind trick to help me gain better perspective on a number of major decisions over the years.
I’ve also used it in coaching and mentoring situations by asking the person I’m working with to imagine their issue was mine, and I’ve just explained everything they said to me. I then simply ask, “Now, given that information, what advice would you give me?” It’s amazing how often this simple, outside in perspective opens new thoughts and ideas that make all the difference.
Do you have a major judgment call in front of you? Is it about people, strategy or crisis? If you were an executive coach, working with you, what questions would you ask? If you were a consultant, advising you in this situation, what advice would you give?