The Right Path to the Right Decision

At the ASAE Great Ideas Conference in Colorado, speaker and former government executive Shelley Row discussed the ways overthinking and overreacting undermine good decision making---and how to fix it.

Association leaders make dozens of decisions every day, both large and small. But despite the centrality of decision making in our professional lives, “we don’t really talk or think about how we make decisions,” said Shelley Row, who led the session “Use Your Gut: Effective Decision-Making in an Overthinking World” at the ASAE Great Ideas Conference in Colorado Springs on Monday.

That avoidance, Row said, has two kinds of negative consequences. On one hand, groups can be prone to overthinking their decisions and lapse into paralysis by analysis. On the other, leaders can wind up making snap decisions and receive negative responses. These aren’t the positive quick-thinking decisions that Malcolm Gladwell celebrates in his book Blink, Row stressed. “These are the ones where an apology might be necessary afterward,” she said.

When you shove away the nagging feeling, you are literally shoving away a part of your intelligence.

Both responses are rooted in our brain’s makeup, Row explained. The core of our brain is where our values, habits, and skills reside—“where you live 80 percent of the time,” Row said. But our language and logic capabilities are located elsewhere, which is why it can sometimes be difficult to put a name to the frustrations we’re feeling when a decision isn’t quite coming together.

In the case of overthinking, Row, a former engineer and executive at the U.S. Department of Transportation, recommended that people look for particular signs of overthinking. Some examples include delay tactics like requests for “just one more” piece of information and lengthy pros-and-cons lists. In most cases, the person struggling with a decision is has a particular nagging feeling that can be difficult to articulate, and it often involves fear—of change or the unknown. Instead of tamping down the emotion, Row encouraged people to express it. “When you shove away the nagging feeling, you are literally shoving away a part of your intelligence,” she said.

Knee-jerk decisions are also rooted in our emotions, though they manifest themselves differently. In cases where we’re temped to respond too quickly, our amygdala—the repository of our fight-or-flight instinct—is being triggered by people or situations that challenge our values. In those tense environments, Row encouraged leaders to look for the “somatic markers” that we feel or see in others when a bad snap decision may be in the offing—sweating, rapid heartbeat, clenched jaws. Those are all signals that a little more thought is in order. “Ask yourself, ‘what’s really going on?’ And ‘what can I learn from it?’” Row said.

Optimally, groups strike a balance between gathering information and using their intuition to be more effective—to find the “a-ha moment” where they can fearlessly and intelligently make responsible decisions. Often times that means taking a break. That can mean reacting fast, Row said, like calling for a 10-minute break when the tension in the boardroom is a bit too overwhelming. But it also means building in quiet time during the day—like one association executive Row interviewed who makes a point of taking 15 minutes a day to do nothing but look out the window.

That may not look like working on the surface, Row said, but “it’s during that quiet time the answers that are lurking can see the light of day.”

(Mike Enerio/StockSnap)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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