< Back
September 25th, 2018
Deciding how to decide
by Nina Aggarwal

Our Managing Director, Nina Aggarwal, considers why you should take a moment to think before making your next decision.

We make 35,000 decisions each day – ranging from which shoes to wear to whether to put the offer on the house we want to buy. There is a place for speed, yet there are times when a pause could lead to better outcomes.

According to research, throughout our lives, when everything is low-key and manageable, men and women make decisions about risk in similar ways. The exception is in our teenage years when girls are more indecisive than boys. Yet, when the pressure is on in adulthood, things change.

Dr. Therese Huston seeks to debunk negative stereotypes about women as decision makers (How Women Decide (Harvard University Press 2106)). She concluded that “During challenging periods, men and women will often make different choices, and the evidence shows that groups come to better conclusions when there are more women involved. These counterbalancing reactions mean that to make good decisions under stressful conditions, we need both men and women in the room, and both need to be heard”.

In conclusion, women’s decision making became sharper than that of the men when under deadline pressures or stressful events. She found that women became more collaborative; asked for input and opinions; communicated underlying concerns; got annoyed with those who wanted to solve the problems before talking about them; dwelled (arguably for too long) on exploring all aspects, whilst moving slowly towards a plan. This created tension in mixed gender groups where, overall, men rushed for the finish line; took complaints as requests for solutions and viewed success as finding a solution, ideally as quickly as possible.

These outcomes were also observed in various other experiments. There have been many tests assessing participants’ decision making when under pressure. References include work by the Universities of Netherlands and Southern California (Ruud van den Bos Radboud, Dr. Mara Mather, Nichole Lighthall). From virtual gambling to keeping hands in freezing cold water, the findings were that men became more willing to take risks when under stress. Whereas women under stress became more conservative about risk. Mather linked this to other research that found, during difficult times, men inclined toward fight-or-flight responses, while women tried to bond more and improve their relationships.

So how do we enable effective decision making under pressure? Whatever your views on the male vs female debate, the findings challenge a fundamental belief – that decisiveness is defined by speed. A series of studies led by Andrew Hafenback could provide a solution. The studies are rooted in the growing appreciation of mindfulness at work. He found that mindfulness helped lead to better decision making. It allowed people to make more rational decisions. Also to consider the information available in the moment. This led to more positive future outcomes.

In addition, in his (2015) Psychology Today article, Christopher Bergland cited that “Mindfulness could give the prefrontal cortex time to relay the true neuroeconomic costs of your decision and help you make smarter choices”. If society defines good decision making as fast decision making, it’s no wonder that taking time or asking for help is seen as a weakness.

As business planning timelines shrink and “agile” strategies expose commercial, R&D, production and marketing teams to intense timelines, the pressure to make decisions instantly grows. The need for immediacy creates stress and heightens the possibility of ‘failure’ or greater personal risks e.g. to career, reputation, well-being. Yet the research shows that great leadership does not necessarily need, nor gain from, instant decision making.

What if businesses re-framed excellent decision making as the ability to collaborate in fact finding; to consider the whole picture; to play out various impact scenarios before concluding? And what if our systems and processes allowed for this? We could find ourselves hitting the jackpot more often, more quickly.

Maybe next time you need to make a significant decision under pressure, you could take a few deep breaths and call on a friend.