Good leaders need to make good decisions. Unfortunately we humans make bad decisions—for all the wrong reasons. Anything thing we can do as leaders to give ourselves an edge in making better decisions is good for our organizations. Chip and Dan Heath offer a four-step process for better decision-making.
On February 25, an adjunct instructor at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) asked his students to perform an in-class learning activity that is both recommended in a textbook and considered a fairly standard approach to teaching students about the symbolism of words. It turned out to be anything but ordinary. It sparked a campus controversy that swelled into a national debate over religion, faculty rights, and how FAU handled the matter. You can get the details of what happened here.
In retrospect, what happened at FAU can provide lessons for leaders, because it serves as a case study for bad decision-making. Instead of taking the time to gather the facts and explore its options, FAU quickly caved in to public and political outrage, condemned the instructor, and issued a ban on the activity. In June it decided to rehire the adjunct, citing an investigation which found the instructor innocent of the accusations. Could the leaders at FAU have done a better job with this controversy and the decisions they made? If they had read the Heath brothers new book Decisive, the answer is probably yes, they could have made a better decision.
Being a leader means making decisions. Superiors and subordinates expect leaders at all levels to know what to do in different situations. There are a multitude of approaches to making good decisions, but ultimately many leaders will go with their instincts. That’s dangerous, because human beings are inherently bad at making decisions. We are bad at interpreting numeric data. We are more inclined to avoid loss than seek gains, which paralyzes us when choosing risky options. We operate with biases that influence our decisions in ways we fail to recognize. As leaders we can confront the problems of poor decision-making by better understanding how decisions are made, how our flaws put us at risk of making bad ones, and what steps we can take to do better. In a previous column I made the point that leaders needed to study decisions to better understand why they lead to success or failure, and what lessons are learned from the experience.
Tradeoffs Are Not Easy
In his essay “To Move Ahead You Have to Know What to Leave Behind,” Nick Tasler writes that the challenge of decision-making is the tradeoff. Our decisions are often a choice between two options, and we must determine what we can live without in order to get what we want. FAU quickly decided it could tradeoff the instructor in order to escape state and national scrutiny over what was being described as a religiously offensive assignment. Then, things got more complicated. The FAU faculty believed it was their classroom integrity and academic freedom that was being sacrificed in the name of public relations. FAU’s choice appeared to be just A or B. A—defend the faculty member and stand up to public outrage. B—sacrifice the faculty member in order to satisfy the critics. What if we had a strategy for making our decision A and B, some combination of possibilities that offer a better outcome than A or B? If we could do that, we’d probably be making better decisions.
Process for Better Decisions
Masters of communicating complex ideas with great simplicity, Chip and Dan Heath are now doing for decision-making what they did for communication and change management in their previous two books—Made to Stick and Switch—giving the rest of us a better, more memorable approach to better leadership. Rather than using complicated theories to explain why we are lousy decision makers, the Heaths break it down into four basic failures. First, we greatly limit the number of options we consider when creating decision scenarios. This is not surprising, considering that we are limited by bounded rationality, and must push ourselves to broaden our options. Second, we convince ourselves our decisions are right by looking only at the information that supports our beliefs. Confirmation bias is difficult to overcome. Third, we are emotionally attached to our decisions. Failing to distance ourselves from the issues leads to short-sighted solutions. Fourth, we have too much faith in our own predictions. It feels fairly safe now to state that people will always want to read print books, but would you bet your library’s future on it? So what can we do? The Heath brothers’ suggestion—practice WRAP.
FAU Didn’t WRAP It
Following the advice they give in Made to Stick, the Heath brothers’ book Decisive offers an easy to remember, simple yet powerful formula for being a better decision maker. It’s a four-step process leaders can use to think more deeply about situations before arriving at a decision. They call it WRAP, and each of the four steps addresses those decision failures.
- “W” stands for “Widen Your Options.” FAU acted as though it had only one option, to place the instructor on leave and ban him from the campus. Was that its only option, or should it have broadened its considerations to include other possibilities? For example, an external review of the situation by experts in the field.
- “R” stands for “Reality-Test Assumptions.” FAU assumed the only action that would appease its critics was the removal of the faculty member. Using strategies to test that assumption would have helped surface other options and actions.
- “A” stands for “Attain Distance Before Deciding.” No doubt there was strong emotion all around after the news broke, and it’s possible FAU made an emotionally-based decision. If the administration had asked the critics and attackers to give them two or three days to gain some distance and investigate, things might have turned out completely differently. The leaders could have brought the developer of the problem exercise forward to offer a better explanation of that activity and how the exercise actually worked as intended.
- “P” stands for “Prepare to be Wrong,” and it means that we need to question our ability to predict the future, as we are often wrong. FAU may have thought its immediate action—removing the instructor from the course—would resolve the issue, but it failed to consider the possibility that the instructor had done nothing wrong and would ultimately be vindicated.
More Than Either A or B
Decisive is full of good stories and simple but effective strategies for learning how to be a better decision maker. The big takeaway from Decisive for those who want to learn to be better leaders is that leadership requires deep thinking about developing actions that seek to achieve the optimal outcome in a decision situation by doing some of option A and some of option B to come up with an even better option C. Or, perhaps, neither A or B, but some completely new C. For all the reasons that both limit and warp our ability to see all our options clearly, as leaders we need to have multiple strategies to aid our decision-making methods. Whether in higher education or other industries, or even in our own and other libraries, we are exposed to an endless stream of stories about bad decisions that lead to troubling and sometimes disastrous results.
We should use these experiences to improve our decision-making. Where did the leaders go wrong? Did they base their decision on a too-narrow field of choice? Could they have widened their options? Were assumptions tested? The book provides many examples of how both bad and good decision acts can be broken down and analyzed to understand what worked and what failed. And when, as leaders, we make a bad decision, it’s important to remember to view it as a learning experience that we can reflect on and analyze to determine where we went wrong, so that we can get better at making the next ones.