Leaders’ Decision-Making: A Blended Approach

Mature decision-making employs the best of two approaches—rational and intuitive.

By Dr. Jay McNaught, Senior Manager, Leadership Development, Pfizer Animal Health, and Cliff Hebard, Principal Consultant, Hebard & Associates Corporate Learning Systems, LLC

Decision-making as a stand-alone leadership development topic seems to generate less interest—on the surface, at least—than other topics.

One cause may be the persistent beliefs that decisions are made either (a.) logically or (b.) intuitively, but not both.

On the contrary, research suggests that:

  • An uninformed over-reliance on intuitive decision-making is a poor basis for important business decisions.
  • Rationaldecision-making methods don’t guarantee right answers either. Any rational decision-making process is limited.

Fortunately, there is solid evidence that intuitive and rational decision-making can be improved with training and coaching.

Intuitive decision-making can be defined as “rapid decisions make without conscious deliberation,” from the gut. Rational decision-making can be seen as deliberation generally based on facts—evaluating alternatives before consciously deciding. Recent research indicates that, to make the best possible decisions, leaders often need both:

  • Some decisions require the structure and analysis of disciplined reason.
  • Other decisions require the speed, spontaneity, and insights of intuition.
  • Still other decisions require a combination of both approaches.

Effective leaders choose the best approach each time; they understand the strengths and limits of both. Research indicates that training and coaching can help leaders make better decisions by purposefully selecting the best approach.

Both types of decision-making can be improved—rational and intuitive. You needn’t restrict yourself to one or the other. Both have validity; both have limits.

In “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell described the power of the adaptive unconscious—how the mind can take information gathered in two seconds or less and reach sweeping conclusions as accurate as those made with detailed analysis. Gladwell cited the example of legendary tennis coach Vic Braden, who noticed during a tournament that he had been sure, 16 out of 17 times, when one of the players would double-fault—before it happened.

Intrigued, Braden paid more attention to the pattern. Once he got 20 out of 20 right.

His uncanny predictions bothered him; he had no idea how he knew those double-faults would happen. Did an extra pre-serve bounce of the ball signal double-faults? A deep breath? A grimace?

He never figured it out.

The secret was Braden’s adaptive unconscious, allowing quick decisions with very limited information. Gladwell dubbed it “thin-slicing.”

Leaders may use thin-slicing for business decisions, but they need to beware that built-in biases may get in the way and result in flawed decisions.

Consider just one complication: change.

Human history reaches back to utterly different worlds where our “fight-or-flight” response to threat served us well, prompting us to either flee from or counterattack threats such as animals, floods, and armies.

How well does “fight or flight” serve us today? Consider an argument during a meeting in the boardroom; decisions there by a leader who relies strictly on his intuition could be completely inappropriate. Threats in (most) business meetings aren’t physical.

Let’s say you made a superb decision on a difficult problem two weeks ago, and are prepared to use exactly the same process of observation and assessment on a problem that arose today.

But is today’s problem really the same as the last one? Or only similar? And how similar?

You may be predisposed to repeat the approach that worked, but the new situation may be substantially different. Researcher Richard Lueke explains:

“When aspects of a new situation correspond to aspects of a past experience, we often intuitively infer that the situations will match in other respects. In other words, we see the past experience as an analogy for the present situation and use that analogy to guide our decision-making.

“Analogies can be quite useful if they’re recognized as such and encourage you to drill down into the details…. But analogies can also trick us into making very bad choices.” (Richard Lueke, “When Your Gut Speaks, Should You Listen?” Harvard Business Journal, 2007)

Lueke cites well-researched, successful corporate partnerships as one example of useful analogies that can help executives assess future partnerships. But he also describes then-President Lyndon Johnson’s misjudgment of Vietnam during the 1960s. Johnson and his advisors thought they saw totalitarian aggression; history shows otherwise.

That analogy, Lueke concludes, helped produce bad decisions.

How can you figure out which analogies are useful analogies? Lueke recommends asking five questions taken from related research (Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, “Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers”). They are:

►            What is known about the situation?

►            What is unclear?

►            What is presumed?

►            What are the likenesses to past events?

►            What are the differences?

A 2009 Harvard Business Review article by Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein titled “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions” cites recent cases—such as Homeland Security Operations Center Chief Gen. Mathew Broderick’s weak initial response to Hurricane Katrina—as examples of flawed decisions influenced by thought processes below the levels of consciousness.

They labeled these factors “red-flag conditions,” theorizing that they either distort emotions or encourage the decision-maker to see a false pattern. Fortunately, training and coaching can help leaders identify red-flag conditions.

Rational reasoning can be oversold, too. Even under the best conditions, rational decision-making is imperfect. Our biases intervene, limiting our view of possible consequences—and thus, limit decisions’ rationality and effectiveness (Bazerman, M.H., 2006).

Time and cost limits get in the way, too, cutting us off from information. Leaders may strive to make a purely rational decision, but if they have to work without an accurate definition of the problem, and/or without key criteria, logical reason remains beyond reach.

Limited perceptions, intelligence, and memory further weaken the ability to make the best choice.

Perfect decisions generally require perfect humans, which are in short supply. So mature decision-making employs the best of both approaches—rational and intuitive—recognizing the dangers of over-reliance on either, and blending the two. Research bears this out. In interviews with 60 professionals, 91.5 percent said they combined intuition with data analysis in workplace decisions (L.A. Burke and M.K. Miller, “Taking the Mystery Out of Intuitive Decision-Making,” Academy of Management Executive, 1999).

Leadership development and coaching can provide guidance toward more effective decisions. Here are a few practical design strategies:

  • Take a long-term approach; decision-making ability develops more gradually than some other disciplines.
  • Design training that develops awareness and capability in both approaches—intuitive and rational.
  • Help leaders take a fresh look at their decision-making by using external feedback and assessments.
  • Use experiential methods, especially team or individual projects addressing real needs.
  •  Follow up. Provide job aids, videos, books, and business articles to reinforce training and coaching on decision-making.
  • Re-convene leaders after they have been trained—online if necessary—for problem-solving sessions where they discuss their own decision-making experiences.
  •  Identify coaches for leaders who are well-versed in decision-making and in your organization’s culture.

Jay McNaught, Ed.D., recently earned a doctorate in organizational leadership. His dissertation involved research with senior leaders on their use of intuitive decision-making. He is senior manager of leadership development at Pfizer Animal Health, a division of Pfizer, Inc.

Cliff Hebard, M.B.A., is a freelance and technical writer, and principal consultant at Hebard & Associates Corporate Learning Systems, LLC, a training and writing consultancy in Charlotte, NC.

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